Dear Word Detective: I’m trying to find the word the describes the following examples: When you decide to buy a red minivan then suddenly you notice all the red minivans driving around you, or when you plant a flower in your yard then suddenly you notice all the yards with the same flower planted. I’ve heard it in a seminar but can’t remember any part of the word. –Judy Ewens.
Good question. I believe the word you’re looking for is “suburbia.” More than just a locale on the fringes of big cities, “suburbia” is actually a discrete state of mind, a subset of the Jungian “collective unconscious,” manifested in rigid herd behavior. Today it might be red minivans, fifteen years ago it was those stupid “Baby on Board” signs in every car, tomorrow it’ll be, oh, epaulets on pajamas or something equally pointless. Might as well get with the program and line up for your iPhone.
Just kidding. The word you want is probably “synchronicity,” which is sort of a coincidence on steroids. The word was coined by the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, to describe, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “the phenomenon of events which coincide in time and appear meaningfully related but have no discoverable causal connection.” A “synchronicity,” from the Greek “synchronos” meaning “happening at the same time,” is a coincidence that seems far too finely tuned to be mere coincidence.
One of the examples of synchronicity cited by Wikipedia (and apparently verified by multiple sources) is a genuine stunner: “During production of The Wizard of Oz, a coat bought from a second-hand store for the costume of Professor Marvel was later found to have belonged to L. Frank Baum, author of the children’s book upon which the film is based.” Ooooeeeooo.
Jung felt that such “synchronicities” were evidence of an underlying pattern or mechanism in human existence and, perhaps, even evidence of a “collective unconscious” shared by all people. Whatever the explanation, most of us have had at least a mild experience of the phenomenon. A few years ago I was reading an essay on the Russian author Anton Chekhov as I waited on a subway platform in New York City. I had just read Chekhov’s famous line “You ask, ‘What is life?’ That is like asking, ‘What is a carrot?’ A carrot is a carrot, and nothing more is known about it,” when the train entered the station. Glancing up, I noticed that the motorman was, improbably but unmistakably, eating a large orange carrot.