Seduction by Credit

In The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: A Study in Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Science (Princeton University Press, $29.95), published in February, the late Robert K. Merton, Ph.D. '36, LL.D. '80, and the late Elinor Barber, Ph.D. '51, eruditely and entertainingly trace the history of the word "serendipity" from its coinage in 1754 by Horace Walpole. The young Merton first happened upon the word in his very own copy of the Oxford English Dictionary, which he had acquired, he writes, as follows.


It may be remembered that 1933 was the year in which Franklin Delano Roosevelt—soon known the world over as FDR—first took office as president of the then ailing United States. In an instant effort to cope with the years-long economic chaos that became known as the "Great Depression," FDR's first official act was to declare a "national banking holiday." That "holiday" or "moratorium" closed all banks in the country, which meant that Americans would not have access to their bank deposits for some unannounced duration. And rather more egocentrically, it meant that I would not have access to my meager savings at the Cambridge Savings Bank conveniently located on Harvard Square.

But all was not lost. Deprived of their customary trade, merchants on Harvard Square swiftly adapted to that condition by offering to extend credit to properly certified Harvard students. And happily for us student bibliophiles...the owner of our favorite Phillips Book Store headed the list of those rational, ingenious, risk-taking, and sympathetic merchants making that inviting offer. That led less optimistic bibliophiles, including myself, to rush to the bookshop in the thought that they might be able to convert at least some of their inaccessible and possibly irredeemable cash into books. Browsing through the bookshop...I came upon the 10 resplendent volumes of the OED, that wonderfully instructive and very expensive reference work which I had been consulting in libraries since its first appearance in 1928 but which I obviously had no intention, expectation, or hope of acquiring....Unable to resist temptation, I found myself ready to invest a sizable portion of my fellowship stipend to become the happy owner of the grandest English dictionary of them all. I am still fairly confident that I would not have dared make what was for me a huge investment back then, were it not for my pessimistic doubt that I would ever be able to salvage the whole of my scanty savings. And, of course, I became all the more eager to "close the deal" then and there when the ingenious (and, I'm inclined to think, empathetic) bookseller went on to make a handsome offer; he would accept my I.O.U. and have it apply to the purchase of the forthcoming 1933 edition—an edition announced as replete in fully 13 volumes, rather than the first, 1928 edition of 10 volumes—which would include a supplementary volume devoted to new words and to a bibliography of the sources of quotations in the entries. That further offer proved irresistible....

My pessimism about the recapturing of my savings thus turned out to be a most fortunate risk-aversive error. For, of course, FDR saw to it that the banks were reopened in a matter of weeks. But, from my acutely grateful perspective, he had also seen to it that I should come away from the national banking crisis with my very own precious set of the OED.

...I had devoted almost a third of my still remaining but inaccessible cash resources to the serendipitous purchase of the OED. Still, I now have only to glance at those heavily worn volumes on a nearby bookshelf to reflect on the pleasurable use to which they have been put these last 70 years and to realize yet again the impulsive wisdom of that scholarly investment.


You might also like

Steven Pinker on Apple’s Vision Pro

Professor of psychology on the science and history behind the Vision Pro.

The State of Black America

Harvard African American scholars take stock of a difficult moment. 

Threats Foreign and Domestic

Joseph Nye discusses geopolitics and Harvard’s challenges.

Most popular

Harvard Corporation to Drop Law School Shield Linked to Slavery

The announcement follows a Law School committee’s recommendation to abandon the shield. 

The Intellectual Clash Over Final Clubs

Faculty members debate final clubs and freedom of association. 

The Senior Alumni

The oldest graduates at Commencement

More to explore

Photograph of Winthrop Bell 1910

Winthrop Bell

Brief life of a philosopher and spy: 1884-1965

Illustration of people talking to each other with colorful thought bubbles above their heads

Talking about Talking

Fostering healthy disagreement

Vacationing with a Purpose

New England “summer camps” for adults