Once is Happenchance, Twice is Cool Incidence
Posted by Neal on July 16, 2006
While I was watching a morning news show a few weeks ago, the newscaster asked his interview subject if some incident had been planned, or if it had just been “happenchance.” Happenchance? I thought. Doesn’t he mean happenstance? Sure he does. I remember when I learned the word, back in seventh grade: I was reading Goldfinger by Ian Fleming, where I learned that “Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action.” The newscaster, I figured, must have heard the word happenstance, not understood what the stance part meant, and substituted the more sensible chance by folk etymology.
Funny that I should have come across a folk-etymologized version of happenstance, since it wasn’t too long ago that I heard a folk-etymologized version of coincidence, too. It came from Doug, who was recounting one of his favorites stories about our cats. It was about the time that Flowers and Nick had been fighting up on the bridge that runs over our dining room, and Nick managed to push Flowers over the edge. Flowers went tumbling ten feet to the floor. His fall, however, was broken by my wife, who happened to be walking under the bridge at that moment. She got some angry red scratches on her chest from the incident, and Doug got his funny story. As he put it,
That was a cool incidence how Mommy was walking under the bridge just when Nick was pushing Flowers off.
Coincidence has been turned into cool incidence by other people, too, as I found when I Googled the phrase. Usually, though, I can’t tell if they’re doing it for humorous effect or seriously. Meanwhile, Doug’s replacement of co- by folk etymology also happens in his pronunciation of cooperation as cool operation. Anyway, I thought, wasn’t that interesting: two words referring to the occurrence of unlikely or enexpected events, both words undergoing folk etymology. It ought to make for a nice blog posting.
Unfortunately, subsequent research spoiled the story. It turns out happenchance might not be folk etymology after all. According to the OED, happenstance itself is a fairly recent coinage, a blend of happen with circumstance, and the earliest citations for it and happenchance are within ten years of each other in the early 20th century. It could well be that happenchance came first, and happenstance arose as a mutation of it, or that the words were invented independently. Even so, I think the folk-etymology story is more likely. In the case where happenchance came first, there is little motivation to replace the intuitive chance with the less obvious clipped form stance. On the other hand, in the case where happenstance comes first, the replacement of the less obvoius stance with the more obvious chance makes more sense.