What does ‘syncretic’ mean?

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Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: syncretic…

You may find it odd to see a Halloween type of photo on top of a post running in July, not October. But the reason relates to my word of the week, syncretic.

I recently encountered the term in the marvellous book Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, by Casey Cep. A remarkable three-part book, it tells the story of a serial killer in Alabama, a fascinating courtroom drama imbued with to the racial politics of the Deep South and the story of writer’s-blocked Harper Lee and her pal Truman Capote.

Here is how Cep used the word:

Voodoo in this country was always syncretic, incorporating saints and feast days and enlisting pastors and priests of countless Christian denominations…

Syncretism is a union or attempted fusion of different religions, cultures, or philosophies. Hence the Halloween photo at the top of this post: the popular holiday has both Christian and pagan roots. And, as another example of syncretism, did you know there were links between the early practitioners of punk rock and the beliefs of Aristotle? (This was news to me, too although I was aware of connections with Neo-Nazism.) 

As for the word’s etymology, it dates back to 1610 and originates from what’s described as Neo-Latin, which in turn comes from the Greek synkrētismós meaning a union of Cretans, i.e., a united front of two opposing parties against a common foe. Interestingly, the word syncretize (to form a confederation) comes from the same root.