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.
Search World Wide Words
Support this website!
Donate via PayPal. Select your currency from the list and click Donate.