October 10, 2003

"Too much of a coincidence to be a coincidence"

John Street is the mayor of Philadelphia, in the middle of a hotly contested election campaign, and the past few days have been difficult for him. First a bug was found in his office, and it turned out to have been planted by the FBI. Then the FBI confiscated his Blackberry. Then the feds raided the homes and offices of several of his supporters and associates.

Today's Philadelphia Inquirer quotes him as saying

"In the true spirit of candor, there are some people, particularly in the African American community, who believe that this is too much of a coincidence to be a coincidence."

This sentence makes perfect sense (though I suspect that it would have made Slate's Bushism of the day" if George Bush had said it).

At first I thought that the mayor's phrase trades on two different senses of "coincidence". But (our local on-line version of) the American Heritage dictionary defines "coincidence" as a sequence of events that although accidental seems to have been planned or arranged. On this meaning, as something become more and more of a coincidence (because it seems more and more planned and arranged), it paradoxically become less and less of a coincidence (because it is less and less likely to be accidental). More simply, the mayor is saying that the timing of his troubles seems too planned to be an accident.

Thus the two uses of "coincidence" in Street's sentence seem not to have different senses, but rather to emphasize different aspects of the same sense.

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 10, 2003 10:35 PM