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Serendipity and the 3 Princes

WE CAN take heart, all of us who work in an apparent rats’ nest of last week’s newspapers, dog-eared cuttings, well-thumbed reference books, old coffee mugs, cigarette boxes with notes on the back, and a strew of desktop flotsam.

Neuro-scientists say we have an exceptionally logical information storage and retrieval system which works very like the brain itself. Everything is always to hand and accessible, but less important stuff gets buried deeper in the pile until it is eventually discarded.

A side benefit of the system is known as serendipity – defined by the OED as “the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident.”

The word was coined by the 18th century British Prime Minister Horace Walpole, and is taken from the old name for Ceylon. Walpole wrote a fairy-tale called “The Three Princes of Serendip”, in which the heroes were always finding things they weren’t looking for.

The same applies to the rummage system of filing, which disgorged a cribbage board when the quest was for a Scrabble outfit. Not only did the cribbage board provide and evening’s entertainment, it brought back many memories, and provided a theme for this week’s column.

And what could be more serendipitous than that!

Way back when The Idler was just an apprentice layabout, and Wordsworth was barely old enough to be allowed on licensed premises, we introduced a crib to the long-gone West Street hostelry which was then home to the Durban Press Club.

Bemused onlookers assumed that moving the pegs along the holes in the wooden board was a part of the game instead of just score keeping, while commentary of “Fifteen two, fifteen four, fifteen six, two for the pair makes 12, and one for his nob, 13” did little to demystify the game for the unenlightened.

Yet virtually everyone uses cribbage-derived terms in normal conversation. Crib itself comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for manager and was later applied to any box-like construction, in this case the “Box” being the store of cards acquired by the dealer of each hand.

A player wins when he has completed two circuits of the board (120 points) and “pegs out” by moving his marker into the 121st hole.

Playing in an obstructive way to prevent the opponent scoring is known as “balking”, and a player who is only halfway round by the time the opponent pegs out is stuck in the section of the board called the lurch.

Such losers are said to be “left in the lurch.”

The same fate befalls compulsive filers who can never remember where they put the missing document.

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