Tony Allen: And finally ... Serendipity!

Feb 17 | 2023

Ask any member of my family and they will tell you that this is my favourite word. It means ‘the occurrence of events by chance in a happy and beneficial way’.

Tony AllenBut that’s not the reason I like it so much, apart from anything else it’s just so darn enjoyable to say!

I must confess that for quite a time I actually thought that I had this mellifluous word all to myself, however, I have now read in a prestigious newspaper, if such a product still exists, that it’s one of the nation’s favourites. This is, of course, most annoying because I can now no longer indulge in this pretension. Additionally, the family have taken to walking around the house like hungry bears in a forest picking up things and crying out ‘serendipity’. I should add that this seemingly childish response almost makes me indulge in another of my favourite words.

The written word and our language have always been a fascination to me, which is probably why I enjoy writing this article so much. I suppose that this goes back to my early days at school when we were fortunate enough to have a truly inspiring English teacher who went by the unusual name of Mr Colloff and who, by a marvel of schoolboy logic, was given the nickname of ‘Boris’ - he of Frankenstein fame. An avid pipe smoker, to this day I can still remember the smell of his St Bruno tobacco-laden breath wafting across his desk.

Mr C would constantly drum into us the importance of the correct use of language, although we didn’t really appreciate it in those early school days. We were told that the diversity of the English language was something to be treasured, with its very diversity facilitating subtle differences of expression. A great language for punning as George Bernard Shaw would say, and I suppose he had the write idea.

My Grandfather of proud working class origins would often be heard to say when confronted with what he would be inclined to call a fancy long word: “I know two long words, one’s marmalade and the other one isn’t!” This ploy was quite effective on occasions, especially if one of us was becoming somewhat verbose.

So at school we slowly learnt that language was a living and constantly changing entity and of course as we got older we came to realise how true this is. I’ll give you a fascinating example of how a language evolves.

Going back to mediaeval times, an undertaker was a person who undertook to supply finance to set up a business. The French, who were less business orientated at the time, had no requirement for such a word. But in due course, as the French economy became more dynamic, they found that they had no word in their vocabulary to cover this function. They needed a word of their own,  so they took the English word ‘undertaker’ and translated it into their own language. Accordingly the word ‘entrepreneur’ (literally ‘between taker’) was born, and most successfully.

From the late 18th century the word ‘undertaker' in English evolved into a euphemism for a funeral director who ‘undertook’ to bury somebody. As a result we were left with no viable word for somebody who undertakes to supply finance to set up a business and of course, and especially with the advent of the industrial revolution, we needed one. So what did we do? Why we purloined the French word ‘entrepreneur’, one which as we now know was originally a translation of our now defunct usage of the word ‘undertaker’. Enthralling isn’t it?

I’m not sure that we appreciate the value of words any more. Our method of communication is often much more visual through the advent of our ever-present friend the mobile phone. We can now communicate via a series of pictures if we so require. Under these circumstances we are probably not much different from the Chinese for example, and so much so that we have even created a series of pictograms (emojis) so that we can express our emotions without having to go to the trouble of using our brains. Consequently, we lose the intricacies, nuances and evolution of our language and this, I might add, is happening alongside the apparent denigration of the punctuation mark.

All I can say is that poor old Mr Colloff must be spinning in his grave. But at least we have the comfort of knowing that he was buried by an entrepreneur.