The origin of the name Serendip

history of Sri Lanka meaning of Serendip serendipity Sri Lankan history Three Princes of Serendip

February 14, 2021 - Serendip is the ancient Persian name for Sri Lanka (also formerly known as Ceylon) and is the inspiration for the word serendipity. But it is not the only name Sri Lanka used to be known by. Read on to discover more.

Historical background
Sri Lanka is a beautiful tropical island in the Indian ocean, just off the south-eastern tip of India. It has been a stopping point for traders between Europe, the Middle East and China since ancient times. 

They came for the gems and spices that Sri Lanka was famous for, and many of the traders from Arabia settled around the island, bringing their own cultures which merged with local traditions over the centuries. They called this land Serendib.

But the Arabs were not the first, and by no means the last, to settle in Sri Lanka. 

Colonial influences
Sri Lanka has been known by many different names in the past. The ancient Greeks called it Taprobane, the Romans knew it as Selan, while the early European colonialists, the Portuguese and the Dutch, referred to it as Ceilão and Zeilan respectively.

The British were the last nation to colonise Sri Lanka, and they adapted the earlier names to call it Ceylon. They introduced a new crop which became synonymous with the island - tea. The brand name Ceylon Tea is still used today.

Persian fairy tales
Earlier, Persian traders called it Serendip, giving the name to an ancient Persian fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip, whose heroes were always making accidental discoveries of things they were not looking for.

This is what those Princes might have looked like, dressed in the traditional finery of the ancient Kingdom of Kandy in central Sri Lanka.


This fairy tale became very popular in Europe in the 18th century, when it was translated alongside other famous Middle Eastern works such as The Arabian Nights (or the One Thousand and One Nights). Today we recognise Sinbad the Sailor and Ali Baba as famous characters from that era.

In 1754, The Three Princes of Serendip inspired the British writer Horace Walpole to invent a new word to describe a happy coincidence - serendipity.

So when I am asked whether the business name Serendip is an abbreviated version of the word serendipity, I say it is actually the opposite - serendipity is an extended version of Serendip, one of the many former names of Sri Lanka. O