Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

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.

3 Responses to “Once is Happenchance, Twice is Cool Incidence”

  1. Philip Whitman said

    I’m not sure, but would “cool incident” be more accurate, diction-wise, than “cool incidence?” I’m not criticizing Doug, I’m merely asking. I’ve long associated the word “incidence” with statements such as “The murder incidence rate is higher today than it was a year ago,” whereas I’ve associated the word “incident” with statements such as, “An unusual sequence of events resulted in a benign act resulting in a lethal incident today.


  2. Neal said

    Probably cool incident would be more in line with conventions of diction, but given the source of Doug’s term ended in -ence, his reinterpretation does, too. Now if he were more familiar with the word incident, I’d say he might well have folk-etymologized coincidence as cool incident.

  3. amelia said

    The etymology stuff is out of my league, but I grew up (in Brooklyn, NY) hearing the words pronounced “coo-operation” and “coo-incidence.” I just thought they were among those words not pronounced as they are spelled. This post struck me because I caught myself using the “coo” in one of those words the other day though I’ve generally discarded that pronunciation for the phonetic one. Apologies for stating the obvious if it’s known that some people pronounce the words that way and that this may be where “cool incidence” came from. Just thought I’d suggest it could be a mishearing of a little-known regional mis- or alternate pronunciation.

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