Tuesday, October 05, 2010

At Home and At Large

At Home: A Short History of Private LifeBill Bryson has a new book out today, making this as close as I get to observing a religious holiday. I loaded Sam in the off-road stroller and set off on a 60-minute backwoods route to the bookstore to seize a copy as it was being loaded into a window display.

The book, At Home: A Short History of Private Life, is another of Bryson's delightfully tangential, anecdote-laced excursions through history. I'm only a couple of chapters in, but already hopelessly in its thrall--which is why Sam spent the afternoon marinating in his own filth while I sipped Shiraz and flipped pages.

Early on, however, on Page 12, where Bryson is relating the story behind the unlikely construction of the "Crystal Palace" in London in 1851 (trust me, it's a fascinating tale) we find this:
The glass levy was abolished in 1845, just shy of its hundredth anniversary, and the abolition of the window tax followed, conveniently and fortuitously, in 1851. Just at the moment when Paxton wanted more glass than anyone ever had before, the price was reduced by more than half.
The problem here is with the word fortuitously, which Bryson seems to be using as a synonym for fortunately. But...
Fortuitous means accidental or by chance...A fortuitous occurrence may or may not be a fortunate one.
That definition comes from A Dictionary of Troublesome Words, an indispensable reference work thoughtfully compiled by--you guessed it--Bill Bryson.  Now, I'll acknowledge that it is possible that Bryson is using fortuitously in the cited passage to mean "by chance," but I'd still maintain that in that context it comes off sounding very much like fortunately.

The lesson here? Never take a child on a 2-hour hike without bringing a sippy cup and change of diaper.