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In an ideal lexicographical world, every word ought to be matched with its opposite, its antonym. Ever since 1754, when Horace Walpole created serendipity — the ability to make unexpected and fortunate discoveries — it has had to survive without one. It is only recently appeared:

So what is the opposite of Serendip, a southern land of spice and warmth, lush greenery and hummingbirds, seawashed, sunbasted? Think of another world in the far north, barren, icebound, cold, a world of flint and stone. Call it Zembla. Ergo: zemblanity, the opposite of serendipity, the faculty of making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries by design. Serendipity and zemblanity: the twin poles of the axis around which we revolve.

Armadillo, by William Boyd, 1998.

Boyd’s source may be a strangely constructed novel by Vladimir Nabokov of 1962, Pale Fire, which features the “distant northern land” of Zembla and a series of apparent coincidences that are actually a deliberate linkage of events. Nabokov's reference is surely to Novaya Zemlya, a group of Arctic islands owned by Russia, which were at one time commonly referred to in English as Nova Zembla. Zemlya means earth or land in Russian, a prosaic word, but not in itself unpleasant.

Zemblanity hasn’t achieved mainstream status, though Mr Justice Michael Peart used it in a legal judgment in Ireland in 2012 and it has been borrowed as the title of a bit of madcap physical theatre, which was performed, for example, at the 2009 Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 14 Apr. 2012
Last updated: 16 Oct. 2013

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-zem1.htm
Last modified: 16 October 2013.