August 16, 2007


One of the stories on All Things Considered yesterday was "What can satellites do for domestic spying?", in which "John Pike, director and founder of, talks with Robert Siegel about the capability of satellites that will be used by Homeland Security to spy within the United States."

The end of the interview gives us an unusual example of the subtle social sanctioning of morphological innovation. Or is it just appreciative emphasis?

Robert Siegel: When we see what's done with uh say closed-circuit television imagery, in- in Britain,
*after* uh crimes have been committed,
it seems that all those images are very useful to go back and see what happened, that is retrospectively.
Would that also be a use of satellite imagery, as opposed to real-time predictive # uses?
John Pike: Probably # not, because these uh cameras in the spy satellites are point and click.
You have to consciously decide, "I'm going to acquire an image of this particular area".
Maybe happenstantially you're going to find some information that would be
relevant, but I wouldn't count on # it.
Robert Siegel: "Happenstantially".
John Pike: Yes.
Robert Siegel: Thank you very much for ...

According to the OED, happenstance is a "amalgam of HAPPEN(ING + CIRCUM)STANCE", coined in America in the late 19th century. The two earliest citations are:

1897 Outing (U.S.) XXX. 557/1, I guess it was just a 'happenstance'.
1911 Dialects Notes III. 544 Happenchance, happenstance, happening, circumstance. Used facetiously. Blend-formations.

The OED has no entry for happenstantially, but there are more than 300 Google hits. The word also occurs 22 times in sources indexed by Google Scholar. These mostly seem to mean "according to circumstantial accident", as in a book review by Jeannette Mungo, "Empowering the past, confronting the future: the Duna people of Papua New Guinea", Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 13 (2), 521522, 2007:

The authors' idea of flexible groups -- cognitive descent lines that are deployed happenstantially in response to the on the ground situation of descendants ...

But sometimes the meaning seems to drift in less expected directions (W.A. Greene, "A Kernighan-Lin local improvement heuristic that softens several hard problems in genetic algorithms", The 2003 Congress on Evolutionary Computation, v. 2, pages 1006-1013):

In this section we experiment with four problems which have been touted in the literature as being ones especially difficult for genetic algorithms. Happenstantially, earlier researchers who worked on these problems asserted that niching was necessary for solving them. Our experiments will demonstrate, in particular, that our Kernighan-Lin local improvement heuristic can replace and indeed improve upon niching as the key for solving these problems.

The NYT does not seem to have countenanced happenstantially, but has printed happenstantial several times, including Carol Vogel, "The Barnes stays local in selecting its leader", NYT 8/8/2006:

Mr. Rudenstine said it was only ''happenstantial'' that Mr. Gillman led a Philadelphia institution. He said that the Barnes's search was international in scope, with more than 130 candidates expressing interest. ''We started out with no geographical ideas,'' Mr. Rudenstine said.

And Holland Cotter, "Bill Rice, 74, Downtown Artist, Actor and Impresario, Dies", 1/29/2006:

Mr. Rice was recently described by the photographer Larry Mitchell as ''the last Bohemian,'' chronically but contentedly short of money, interested only in happenstantial fame, rarely traveling more than a few blocks from his home.

The Irish Times allowed the same word in Douglas Kennedy's 11/12/2005 book review:

The Year of Magical Thinking is Didion's attempt to sort through the psychic debris of these personal disasters; to try to understand the terrible happenstantial nature of things.

And Google finds more than 1,000 examples of happenstantial, which is apparently the thin edge of the happenstantially wedge.

Thus John Pike deserves neither credit nor blame for coining happenstantially, but Robert Siegel's double-take was strikingly effective. Without it, I don't think I would have noticed the word. Now it's going to be hard to avoid having it creep into my own vocabulary.

[Update -- Ben Zimmer writes:

Though it doesn't show up in an archive search on the New York Times site, I found an example of "happenstantially" via ProQuest in the NYT Book Review of July 1, 1970. Reviewing novels by Carol Evan and Katherine Dunn, John Leonard writes: "Here, then, are two first novels, both of them accomplished, and both of them written, happenstantially, by women."


[Update #2 -- Bruce Rusk points out that Google Books has quite a few hits for happenstantially and even more for happenstantial.

Although Google Books' dates (and other metadata) are very unreliable, one citation appears to be from a chapter "Dimensioning in Associative Memory", by Benjamin F. Cheydleur of the Philco Corporation, pp. 55-92 of a 1963 work entitled "The Augmentation of Man's Intellect by Machine" (Vistas in Information Handling, vol. 1), edited by Paul William Howerton and David C. Weeks.

"Whatever the device, it must function precisely as a 'content-addressable' memory, i.e., as a memory which has cells that are addressable by the presentation of a part of the code happenstantially contained in the cell, rather than by the physical location code ('address') of the cell."

This is a somewhat famous book, since Douglas Englebart has a chapter in it under the title "A Conceptual Framework for the Augmentation of Man's Intellect by Machine".

And at least the 1983 edition of Laurence Urdang's Synonym Finder has happenstantial in the list of synonyms for ironic (!):

It may be there in the 1961 edition as well.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 16, 2007 09:11 AM