Gobbledegook, Poppycock, Whimsy and Spam / by Michelle Sander

Julius Comroe said, "Serendipity is looking in a haystack for a needle and discovering a farmer's daughter." 

Style | Faulkner House Books | New Orleans, Louisiana | 2016

Style | Faulkner House Books | New Orleans, Louisiana | 2016

In 1754, the word "serendipity" was first coined. It's defined by Merriam-Webster as "the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for." It was recently listed by a U.K. translation company as one of the English language's 10 most difficult words to translate. Other words to make their list include plenipotentiary, gobbledegook, poppycock, whimsy, spam, and kitsch.

The invention of many wonderful things have been attributed to "serendipity," including Kellogg's Corn Flakes, Charles Goodyear's vulcanization of rubber, inkjet printers, Silly Putty, the Slinky, and chocolate chip cookies.

  • Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin after he left for vacation without disinfecting some of his petri dishes filled with bacteria cultures; when he got back to his lab, he found that the penicillium mold had killed the bacteria.

  • Viagra had been developed to treat hypertension and angina pectoris; it didn't do such a good job at these things, researchers found during the first phase of clinical trials, but it was good for something else.

  • The principles of radioactivity, X-rays, and infrared radiation were all found when researchers were looking for something else.

I remember learning the phenomenon of serendipity for the first time. It was used by one of my professors in a Modern Dance class to describe movement using improvisation instead of choreography. “The result,” she said, “could be serendipitous.” Then, like when you learn any new word, it started crawling out of the woodwork. It was in every newspaper, magazine, textbook, radio broadcast; it followed me like a shadow. 

Regardless of its abundance, however, I thought of the term fondly until my English professor told us that some terms come in and out of fashion like the latest cut of boot. I was scandalized. A word I see everywhere, not to mention one that is so fun to say, was just another version of the latest kitsch. Since this revelation, I’ve decided to choose my words like I choose my boots: classics for everyday and the latest styles for the occasional night on the town.