Some Things Just Happen
By Evan Jenkins
He was supposed to back up Barton,” the story said, “but early in camp Foels asked him to be a floater and learn all three positions. That proved fortuitous when Thomas was injured White stepped in and filled the hole.”
The clear implication is that White’s learning three positions was a lucky or fortunate thing, but that isn’t what “fortuitous” means. It means happening by chance. White’s extra training didn’t just happen; it was planned. And what happens fortuitously can turn out to be good or bad.
The word used the right way can mean, for example, things stumbled upon: “Fortuitous products of poverty, such as lard-can trash receptacles and peach-basket hampers, can be the stuff that magazine layouts are made of.” Happy happenstance. But the junk that’s grist for the layout artist’s mill might be a pain in the neck for a landscape painter, and it would still be just as fortuitous.
CJR, May/June 1997
Afterthought: A rule of thumb would be that nothing proves, becomes, or turns out to be, fortuitous. It is fortuitous a matter of chance rather than planning the moment it happens, for good or ill.
A lovely, grim use of the word occurs in Graham Greene’s ‘The Quiet American.’ As a French jet with the novel’s narrator aboard returns from a bombing mission in Vietnam, the pilot spots a small sampan on the river below and blows it to bits with machine-gun fire. “There had been something so shocking,” Graham wrote, “in our sudden fortuitous choice of a prey we had just happened to be passing, one burst only was required, there was no one to return our fire, and we were gone again, adding our little quota to the world’s dead.”
Whatever a pilot in such circumstances might have thought, the storyteller clearly didn’t use “fortuitous” to mean “lucky.”