Words And Reason: The Decline of Serendipity

by Cynthia Clampitt

Cynthia Clampitt
Cynthia Clampitt

I have always loved browsing. I love browsing through dictionaries, through cookbooks, through libraries and bookstores. I love browsing the way a treasure hunter loves exploration—and for the same reason. Treasures have this tendency to not stand out in the open, waiting for you. You have to look for them—and while you’re looking for them, you often find something else, as well.

Lately, I have found myself increasingly relying on Internet dictionaries—Merriam-Webster has a great one. I subscribe to Britannica online, and I am as guilty as anyone else of heading to Amazon when I hear about a book I’d like to read. And yet last night, as I sat at the dining room table doing one of those things I encourage others to do—writing longhand—I reached down and picked up a print dictionary that was leaning against the table leg, and I looked up a word. It took me nearly half an hour, not because I’ve forgotten the alphabet, but because I had rediscovered the joy of serendipity—that discovering of agreeable things that were unlooked for. I was also reminded how much less likely serendipity is these days, as we rely more and more on the Internet.

As I flip now through the pages of the dictionary, looking at the guide words at the top, my curiosity is piqued by moulage, morris chair, mufti. A small drawing of a halberd head catches my eye. I need to stop and find out what these are, and in doing so, I am not only entertained, but also better prepared for a surprising range of literature or journalism.

I do realize that not everyone has print dictionaries these days (how do you live?), but in that case, for discovery, there is “A Word A Day” (aka AWAD). You can go to this site and scan the archives for beautiful, useful, but somewhat less common words that are worth knowing—or you can subscribe and receive a word and its definition in your e-mail inbox every day. Or do both—browse dictionaries and subscribe to AWAD. But whatever you do, add words to your brain. It has been shown that this has many benefits, from greater comprehension of the world around you to staving off dementia. Really. Words are that necessary to your brain.

Of course, the dictionary is not the only place that offers the opportunity of serendipity. I love bookstores and libraries for their ability to offer more than I could imagine. Sometimes, they are overwhelming, because I want to read everything. It is amazing how many books there are that I’ve never heard mentioned before. I scan the shelves, my eyes drawn to great cover images or intriguing titles. And unlike Amazon, at the library or bookstore, I can pick the books up, find out if they look worthwhile, feel their weight, understand what they offer.

The Internet is wonderfully useful and immediate—but don’t let it make serendipity vanish. Go to bookstores and libraries. Flip through dictionaries, encyclopedias, and other reference works. There are so many more things out there than you will ever encounter any other way—all waiting to be discovered.

BIO: Contributor Cynthia Clampitt is a freelance writer, food historian, and traveler. She loves history, geography, culture, literature, and language—and the place where all of these intersect. She is the author of the award-winning travel narrative, Waltzing Australia, and keeps two blogs, http://www.theworldsfare.org and http://www.waltzingaustralia.com.