The time has come at last! Thanks to delightful listener Luca, we now have a bunch of actual transcripts of episodes to post. These will be linked from the episode show notes, but you’ll also be able to find them on their own section of our site just in case you ever want them, and hopefully they’ll make our show even more accessible.
So, without further ado except for another huge shoutout of thanks to Luca for the work put into these, here we are:
Episode 1: Nice Serendipity
March 12, 2018
Ryan: Hi, everybody. Welcome to Lexitecture. This is our first ever episode. This is a podcast for people who love words, and it’s really quite simple. My name’s Ryan. I’m from Canada. My friend Amy is from Scotland, and we both love the English language to a probably slightly unhealthy degree, but we like talking about it, and we figure we know a couple of word nerd friends each, so maybe there are more of us out there, and hopefully that’s the case. Each episode we’re going to be taking a couple of words that we happen to like, bouncing them off each other, talking a little bit about them, and then exploring the English language that way. So hopefully, this is as entertaining to listen to as it is for us to make, and we will get started. Would you like to go first?
Amy: Oh. Well, I don’t see why not. I’m feeling very self-conscious about this, because, you know, words are the complicated things, and I don’t want to be like outclevered by you, because it is something I care about.
Ryan: That is not…
Amy: I kind of wish I didn’t.
Ryan: … something anyone needs to worry about.
Amy: You know, I think when you’re a kid, being clever is generally seen as a good thing, and then when you become a teenager, it is the exact opposite of that, and so as an adult I’ve had to kind of readjust to how I feel about being clever and kind of showing off. Also, coming back to my countrymen and women, there is no greater sin in Scottish culture than to be a bam.
Ryan: I don’t…
Amy: There’s a good word for you to start off.
Ryan: Yeah, let’s start with that one.
Amy: A bam is basically a show-off, someone who is full of themselves.
Ryan: Oh, okay.
Amy: And bear in mind that the definition of “showing off” in Scotland includes things like wearing colourful clothing, so the bar’s set pretty low for bamhood. Anyway, so I’m going to start off by citing my sources — something, again, which I often have to get my students to do, and because they are citizens of Web 2.0, they look at me as if I’ve actually just grown a trunk and sprayed them with water. And so I’m going to go straight to the Wikipedia. And the reason that I have to tell you that I’m going straight to Wikipedia is because, in a neat little turn of fortune, the word that I’m going to talk to you about, I actually found it by accident. I knew the word. I’d heard it many times, and I thought I knew what it meant, but actually I didn’t know exactly what it meant until I found it by accident on…
Amy: … Wikipedia. And the word is “serendipity”. So I’m going to read you a little bit of Wikipedia just to be properly on the money with my definition. It says, “Serendipity means a, quote, ‘fortune happenstance’ or, quote, ‘fortunate surprise’. It was coined by Horace Walpole in 1754. In a letter he wrote to a friend, Walpole explained an unexpected discovery he had made by reference to a Persian fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip. The princes, he told his correspondent, were ‘always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.’” And this is the thing that I didn’t realize. I didn’t realize that “serendipity” was to find something else when you were looking for another thing. So —
Ryan: I thought it was just luck. I thought it was something that happens that you didn’t expect, but not necessarily that.
Amy: Well, exactly.
Amy: So I find this quite beautiful, because I lose things all the damn time, so as a result of that, quite often my strategy for looking for stuff is to go, “Ah, it’ll turn up. It’s fine. It’s good. It’s somewhere.” So I actually experience serendipity quite a lot in my day-to-day life, because I’m always looking for something. And while not particularly… It’s not a quality that makes me easy to live with, but constantly having most of my things not where I expect them to be does mean that (like customer service in Scotland) you get the occasional unexpected serendipitous surprise when you’re looking for, say, your keys and instead you find that lip balm that you couldn’t leave the house with three days — without three days ago.
So anyway, to continue my tale of serendipity, today I thought, “I’m going to talk about serendipity with Ryan today, definitely, because it’s one of my favourite words. I love the derivation of it. I better go back and check out the article about The Three Princes of Serendip,” and serendipitously discovered that the last time I looked this up, there was a tiny little stub article about The Three Princes of Serendip, and now, there’s a really sort of comprehensive, much more thorough article which I didn’t know was there.
Amy: So, interesting facts, more and more things that I discover by accident as it was going on, it really is quite beautiful. First of all, I discovered that Serendip is the Persian and Urdu name for Sri Lanka. So I assumed that such a exotic-sounding Arabian Nights kind of place was probably fictional, but it is in fact a real place, Serendip. And The Three Princes of Serendip, the most kind of well known story, the one that’s really been translated into English partly (it’s hard to find the others) is one of the lost camel. And the three princes are educated very well. Their father wants them to be model princes. He spends a lot of time and effort in educating them, but he’s worried that they’re kind of book educated but not worldly educated, so he sends them out to kind of make their fortune in this very fairy-taley kind of way. And what they do is, they identify clues, and by the clues that they see, they decide that there has been a camel and that it is lame, blind in one eye, missing a tooth, carrying a pregnant woman, and carrying honey on one side and butter on the other. So of course, this very, very exact description instantly makes everyone suspicious, because how could they possibly know all this stuff? So they go, they’re taken to the emperor, and he is basically going to punish them because they couldn’t possibly know all this stuff, and then they explain all their deductions, and their lives are spared, they’re richly rewarded, all that kind of thing. But the next unexpected thing that I found out was that this is really the first sort of incidence (that Wikipedia knows about, certainly) of what I like to think of as the Sherlock Holmes effect.
Ryan: Okay. The Sherlock Holmes effect.
Amy: Yeah, so you know, Sherlock Holmes meets someone for the first time and is able to tell them all these facts about themselves, about their personality, about their lives, and without fail, people go, “Whoa, how do you know that? You couldn’t possibly know that stuff.” So it’s reckoned that… Well, Voltaire wrote a novel called Zadig whereby he adapted The Three Princes of Serendip and these very qualities, and it’s believed that Poe was probably inspired by Zadig when he created C. Auguste Dupin in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”. And likewise, it’s pretty logical that Arthur Conan Doyle’s very rational, deductive detective may also have been influenced by this idea…
Amy: … that essentially springs from the princes of Serendip who found other things than what they were looking for.
Ryan: That’s amazing. And then from Sherlock Holmes, obviously, the entire genre of the genius TV antihero, including things like House, or Monk, or The Mentalist, or any of these — Columbo, even — or the really…
Ryan: … hyperaware, always looking for anything that might show up, even when they’re not supposed to be looking for it, type of guys, which is… So really, you have discovered the origins of some really super TV shows.
Amy: Well, I like to think so. Basically, there’s nothing that the word “serendipity” can’t bring you.
Ryan: That’s amazing. Wow.
Amy: The other thing, just as an aside, I have a friend who once described House… House is a show I very much love, not just because of delicious, delicious Hugh Laurie and his amazing piano-playing skills, just because it’s just a great show, but my friend described House as, he said every episode’s like a medical-based episode of Scooby-Doo.
Ryan: Oh, I like that.
Amy: I love it, and it’s…
Ryan: I hadn’t thought of that.
Amy: … absolutely accurate, isn’t it?
Amy: There is a mystery, it’s solved (usually in the same predictable way), and at the end, everyone is satisfied.
Ryan: But instead of being Old Man Withers looking like this ghost, it’s always like lupus looking like this other disease, so there’s even the big reveal where it’s like the diagnosis that everyone else thought it was, and House pulls off the mask, like Fred would pull off the mask of the ghost to find Old Man Withers from the amusement park. It’s like, “Oh, look, it was this all along.”
Amy: And my friend, Scott, always says, in House, “Why don’t they just test for lupus straight away? Because it’s always bloody lupus.”
Ryan: It just always is.
Amy: Yeah, and if it’s not lupus, then it’s something that you can find out by testing for lupus and discovering something else serendipitously.
Ryan: See? Now that, that’s an…
Amy: Yeah. It’s everywhere.
Ryan: … intricate tapestry. That’s perfect. That is a cohesive unit of information that we have just…
Amy: Oh, why, thank you.
Ryan: … uncovered. That’s amazing. Wow. I learned a whole lot right there. The first word that came to my mind when we decided to do this was a word that I first, again, used all the time, and it’s one of the most common words, possibly ever… No, not really, but one of the common words, anyway. It’s the word “nice”.
Amy: Oh, you know, when…
Ryan: And I —
Amy: … I teach English, which I do, I tell all my pupils that “nice” is my least favourite word in the whole of the English language because it’s so nondescript, so you have a battle on your hand to convince me that “nice” is in fact a worthy word. Go.
Ryan: Okay. Well, this is, yeah, this is what I thought, too. It was part of my undergrad. I took a history of the English language course in my undergraduate degree, my English degree, and the assignment for this was to delve into etymology, and one of the options was “nice”, and I chose it specifically because I thought, because I was — and remain, to a large extent — supremely lazy, and I thought, “There can’t be anything too deep about the word ‘nice’, so I’m going to go with that one. ‘Nice’ is…”
Ryan: “… the one for me.” So I went out and found an etymological dictionary at the library, and I looked at “nice”, and I knew I had gone the exact wrong or possibly right way when I immediately saw “Nice, adjective, [see science]”. And I went, “Oh. Really? Science. Okay. That’s… Okay.” So I looked up “science”, and it turns out that “nice”, for the longest time, was a purely derogatory word. It’s been around for hundreds of years. I think the earliest adjectival use as quoted by the Oxford English Dictionary, the illustrious OED, was around 1300.
Amy: Oh, wow.
Ryan: And so it’s been around for forever, but for the vast majority of its lifespan, its prolonged lifespan, it has meant very derogatory things, usually “foolish” or “idiotic”, because what it comes from, according to this etymological dictionary that I looked up a million years ago now, it relates to science in that “science” means, it ultimately just means “to know”, like knowledge.
Amy: Scio. Yeah.
Ryan: Scio, and nescio, or nescire, is …
Amy: Means not to know.
Ryan: … to not know, or not to know, if you don’t want to split infinitives, which you should never do, especially when talking to an English teacher.
Amy: Well, did a fairy just die because I split an infinitive?
Ryan: I think so. I think that was me that did that because I said “to not know” or something. I don’t know.
Amy: Do you know what? I don’t care about split infinitives. There you are. I said it out loud.
Ryan: That will make all of this much easier.
Amy: To the extent that I didn’t even notice if it was me or you who split the infinitive, so continue.
Ryan: I am much more comfortable now. That’s wonderful. So yeah, I found that, and that immediately led down this rabbit hole where I had no idea that these two words were connected whatsoever, but yeah, it generally and genuinely meant just “stupid”, “foolish”, “ignorant”, “a simpleton”, any of those things. And that continued for centuries. That’s all it meant. And it actually wasn’t until, I think the earliest you can… You have to go up to basically the mid or early, or middle of the first half of the 20th century, let’s say…
Ryan: … yeah, before it starts meaning what it means, sort of good character, and pleasant, and nice, in its current meaning. But it’s very interesting to look through the way it kind of went, because, at one point, it has gone into, from “ignorant” to describing something that is not particularly obvious or easy to understand, like something obtuse and difficult to grasp. And then it seems like from there, it kind of went from that to just meaning sort of “precise” or “very specific”, and then from there it seems to have evolved and grown into, from “very specific” to sort of “refined” and “delicate” or “fine” or “ornate” or something like that, which then seems to have… Now, most of these connections I’m kind of piecing together in my own un-particularly-educated brain for this, but the various examples are all listed in various etymological sources that, as it goes through history, it makes these changes until it gets to the word now, which sort of is sometimes looked at, especially in teen movies and beleaguered high school unrequited love enthusiasts, to mean “nice” being an unfortunate thing, “Nice guys finish last,” and all that other garbage, but…
Amy: Yeah. Of course.
Ryan: But for the most part, in the 20th century, I think most people would agree that “nice” is a fairly innocuous but generally positive thing on its surface…
Amy: That’s amazing.
Ryan: … anyway, superficially. But originally, yeah, it’s been through this massive, nearly 1,000 years of transmogrification to go from meaning “stupid” to meaning “pleasant”, so you use it now to refer to a nice summer day, cloudless and sunny with a mild breeze and decent temperature where you have to wear a T-shirt without being too cold and you’re not sweltering. Yeah, that was an eye-opening thing to, I picked.
Amy: I wonder what it is, because you can look back through etymological dictionaries and various different sources, and you can find all kinds of words where their meaning has changed, for example, but you also find lots of words that have fallen out of usage. So what is it about “nice” that it’s almost like from a scientific, evolutionary point of view, “nice” has the strongest genes of all the words, because not only has it survived, but it has changed and adapted and melded itself to various different situations so that now, actually, it’s a word that you can use almost anywhere in almost any context, because it can mean… Like what I usually say to my students is, “A doughnut is nice. Finding some money in your pocket you didn’t know was there is nice.”
Ryan: That’s nice.
Amy: “Winning the lottery is nice.” And I make the point that those three things are not the same. They’re not the same in terms of the scale of how you feel about them.
Ryan: No, not even close.
Amy: So if you use “nice” for every single one of them, then you flatten the whole experience. You’re not describing anything particularly, so it’s this kind of… I don’t know. It’s like it’s the word equivalent of that guy that comes to all the parties but no one ever knows that he was there.
Ryan: Yeah, and I agree. It’s a dull word and overused, but it’s interesting that its dullness —
Amy: But it’s so interesting.
Ryan: Yeah, its dullness sort of almost comes from its incredibly varied history. Like it’s meant “laviscious”. It’s meant “lazy”. It’s meant “delicate”. It’s meant “finely dressed”. It’s meant “precise”. It’s meant “fragile”. It’s meant “fastidious” and “fussy”. “Particular”.
Ryan: It’s meant “refined”. It’s meant… Like it’s a virtuous… Yeah, there’s a million different… It’s the word that does it all and has done so since the year 1300.
Amy: It’s the baking soda of words.
Ryan: It is the baking soda of words. You don’t want it on its own or in inappropriate places, but when you need it…
Amy: Goddamn, does it clean that silverware…
Ryan: … it’s there for you. Absolutely.
Amy: … or whatever baking soda does.
Ryan: And it will unstink your freezer like nobody’s business, so there you go. The word “nice” is the baking soda of the English language.
Amy: It’s official. Nice.
Ryan: And that’s it for this episode of Lexitecture. Thanks for listening, and if you enjoyed what you heard, please give us a rating and review on iTunes, and be sure to tell all your word nerd friends about us, too. You can find us on Facebook and Twitter by searching Lexitecture, L-E-X-I-T-E-C-T-U-R-E, and if you’d like to get in touch with us about the things we talked about in this episode, you can send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Special thanks to The Joy Drops for our theme music, and we’ll talk to you again next week.