Dear Word Detective: An officemate and I were discussing our favorite words yesterday. I said mine was “serendipity” (which you covered so well in one of your columns many years ago). She said hers was “velleity.” We both wondered where it came from but she just didn’t have the ambition to look it up. — Donald Wilkinson.
Ba-dum-bump. My keyboard lacks a “rimshot” key, so that’s the best I can do. But you’ll be pleased to know that it took the better part of a full minute for that to sink in, which is why I make a point of never tailgating when I drive.
Those readers who are drawing a blank at this point will have to wait a moment longer for the punch line, since I am duty-bound to briefly explain “serendipity” again before we get to “velleity.” Back in 1754, Horace Walpole, fourth Earl of Orford, wrote a letter to his friend Horace Mann explaining a new word he had invented, “serendipity”: “I once read a silly fairy tale, called ‘The Three Princes of Serendip’; as their highnesses traveled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of….” Walpole defined “serendipity” as “the gift of making lucky discoveries, of finding valuable things one is not looking for,” although today we usually use it to mean, more broadly, “a lucky happenstance” (“Social networks are prime spots for serendipity to play out as we unexpectedly encounter friends of friends or even total strangers that ultimately prove to be helpful,” Bloomberg News, 2009). Incidentally, the “Serendip” from which the princes hailed in the fairy tale Walpole had read was a real place, an island nation in the Indian Ocean later called Ceylon and known today as Sri Lanka.
“Velleity” is also a great word, a bit more obscure than “serendipity,” and is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the fact or quality of merely willing, wishing, or desiring, without any effort or advance towards action or realization.” The couch potato who pays for a membership at the gym but never goes there, the would-be novelist who never actually writes anything, and the inveterate packrat whose piles of “how to get organized” books only add to the clutter are all modern examples of “velleity” in action. “Velleity” is when inclination never matures into intent, let alone the determination to actually do something. The true practitioner of “velleity” pines for the power of Samantha in the old “Bewitched” TV series to transform reality in an instant by merely wrinkling her nose.
“Velleity” first appeared in English in the early 17th century, but its roots lie in the Latin verb “velle,” meaning “to will or to wish.” That “velle” is actually a form of the verb “volo,” meaning “I will,” which is closely related to our English verb “to will” as well as to “volunteer” and “volition,” all of which, I should point out, are far more determined and successful words than the sad and invariably disappointing “velleity.”