Keeping your clocks in time or a connecting principle linked to the invisible…synchronicity or synchronization?

I hate it, hate it, hate it when one of my favorite publications, especially one which has high standards, makes an ignorant error. A couple of weeks back, one just did that.

In this article about the next generation of incredibly precise atomic clocks, Science News used the word “synchronicity” instead of “synchronization” not once but twice in the space of a single paragraph.

Sigh.

Synchronization is the act of synchronizing; when two or more things are caused to occur at the same time. The term is especially and commonly used in relation to clocks set to the same time and meant to run at the same pace. Synchronization is a physical phenomenon.

Synchronicity, as anyone who knows anything about ’80s music should know, is an album and two songs (Synchronicity I and Synchronicity II) by The Police. More important, it’s a term coined, probably in the 1950s, by psychologist Carl Jung. It means, to quote OED, “the phenomenon of events which coincide in time and appear meaningfully related but have no discoverable causal connection.” While the word is sometimes used as a synonym for “coincidence,” they’re not the same thing — coincidences don’t share any apparent causality, only a moment in time.

Where synchronization is physical, synchronicity is a psychological phenomenon, a matter of appearance or perception rather than of substance. In colloquial use, synchronicity seems to have taken on a definition of “a meaningful coincidence” in some quarters, especially in spiritual parlance. It seems to be reached for to help find meaning in an otherwise meaningless world, which is probably what Jung’s intent was: the events don’t have any connection, but perceiving some connection imposes order. Seeing synchronicity in events can bring comfort (even though the events are not actually related and there isn’t any greater power behind them).

Those are very different definitions, especially when one keeps in mind the distinction that one term (synchronization) involves deliberate connection, while the other (synchronicity) specifically denies a connection (there is only the appearance of a connection, not the reality).

One could almost forgive the slip in the Science News case, since the clocks being discussed in the article rely on quantum entanglement (frequently described as “spooky action at a distance”). However, since that phenomenon is fairly well understood, the lack of a causal connection inherent in synchronicity disqualifies that word.

Synchronization is really the only word that should have been used here.

Alright, perhaps I’m overreacting, but I’m sensitive to this stuff. It’s part of what I do. I griped about a similar “look-alike” or “near-miss” error not long ago, which can probably be considered in the same class as this one.

When someone uses a word because they think it means something but they’re wrong, that muddies the waters for everyone else from that point on. Copyeditors are supposed to know better. That’s a big part of what good editing is all about, and to see it so conspicuously lacking is disappointing.

Thanks for reading. While this post will have done nothing to improve your synchronization, maybe you found a little synchronicity in it.

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About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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