Spain through the looking glass

(Un)Happy accidents

with 2 comments

Late last week, I discovered a shocking truth about the Spanish: they have no word for serendipity. Or at least not yet.

While the Spaniards have – in chiripa – a nifty little noun which ploughs some of the same furrow (the word means “fluke” or a “lucky break”), their dictionary still lacks a single term that does all the heavy-lifting of own serendipity.

Or do they? Because anyone with a moment to spare can easily hop online and find that – actually – there is a word in Spanish very like our own silvery serendipity: its serendipia. And we are not talking about some left-field term here. A Google search brings up a full 333,000 hits. There is a Spanish-language site called and a too.

There is even a (Spanish) Wikipedia entry for the Spanish word which provides not only a definition – identical to the standard meaning in English – but also a full etymology (including a rundown of author Horace Walpole’s coining of the word in 1754) and a useful list of examples of the phenomenon.

So what’s going on? Is there a Spanish version of serendipity or not. Well, yes and no. Because it turns out that serendipia is currently in linguistic limbo as it awaits official approval from Spain’s linguistic overlords, the Real Academia Española.

The RAE is the royal body charged with keeping the unruly Spanish language in check in much the same way that the Académie Francaise sets the spelling and grammar rules for French. And until Spain’s royal language academy pulls out its wax seal for serendipia, it is not a word (voz) but a mere palabreja, which mean a strange word, or a word of little importance (and which – oddly enough – itself does not appear exist in my huge printed Collins Spanish dictionary. Were the editors messing with us?).

Anyway, I would never have been exposed to the terrible secret of Spain’s lack of serendipity if the RAE hadn’t taken the unprecedented step of meeting in public last week. The members of this ancient order – it was founded in 1713 to protect the “purity and splendour” of the Spanish language – usually meet behind closed doors at their neoclassical pile in Madrid. Last Thursday, however, they braved both the cold and Spain’s transport system to hold their weekly meeting in coastal Cadiz.

They were there to mark the 200th anniversary of the signing of Spain’s 1812 constitution, a document viewed as Spain’s owners Magna Carta and which being, Spanish, has a nickname: La Pepa.

So to celebrate La Pepa’s bicentenary, the Academy invited 250 guests to come and listen as they discussed such as pressing issues as who should fill the vacant seats on their committee. More critically, though, the meeting involved a gabfest about words that should be included in the all-important RAE dictionary, the online version of which receives over 40 million hits a month. And the highlight of the hour and a half long meeting came during a discussion of – you guessed it – the non-RAE approved word serendipia.

Several members of the RAE were plumping pretty hard for serendipity. Álvarez de Miranda, director of the RAE dictionary pointed out the word already existed in the academy’s databases while his colleague Luis Mateo Díez added that the word, though little used, had a certain prestige, especially in the scientific field. Unfortunately, Academy members were unable agree on either the merits of the word or its exact meaning. However, RAE honorary director Víctor García de la Concha did promise to go off and ‘analyse the documentation’.

And to think: if it hadn’t been for some vague wanderings around the internet late last week, I would never have discovered that the people of Spain have no word that refers to happy accidents like – just to take one example – discovering that you country you have chosen to live in – despite its terrible crisis, and despite the looming threat of tomorrow’s general strike –still has people tasked with deciding what words should and shouldn’t appear in the dictionary.

Let’s hope serendipia gets its official recognition soon.


Written by georgemills25

November 13, 2012 at 09:26

Posted in Culture, language, society, Spain

2 Responses

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  1. Wonderful.

    richard parris

    November 13, 2012 at 09:47

  2. I once had a calendar dictionary that defined a different word for each day. Under serendipity it had: looking for a needle in a haystack and finding the farmer’s daughter.


    November 13, 2012 at 13:12

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