Let's begin with a good definition of "atomic typo."
An atomic typo is an incorrect word in a text that a context-challenged spell-check system is unable to detect because the spelling of the word is not incorrect -- it is just different from the actual word that was intended.
Examples: unclear for nuclear (and vice versa), Chris for Christ, etc.
The term "atomic typo" has been in use in computerized newsrooms and publishing offices for over ten years, although its use in common conversation and news articles is very rare. In fact, most newspaper language mavens, like William Safire of the New York Times, had never heard of it before it was brought to their attention by an interested party.
Such typos are called "atomic typos" apparently because the mistake is very small, minute, just one or two letters in the wrong order or in the wrong place, and like an atomic particle or a sub-atomic particle, the typo is deemed to be very small, and therefore "atomic" in nature.
Examples: unclear or nuclear, sudan or sedan, Chris or Christ, Sudan for Sedan ..... in other words, a small, very small typograhic mistake, that ends up making a big difference in the meaning.
EXAMPLE: letter from editor of Palm Beach Post, Florida: [Tom Morris of Jupiter flagged an atomic typo in the May 14 article, "Crist to run Martinez's Senate campaign," about Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist and U.S. Senate candidate Mel Martinez. Regarding the quote, " 'We share the same values, conservative values,' Christ said," Morris noted: "It's printed Christ, C-h-r-i-s-t, instead of Crist, C-r-i-s-t. I'm sure Christ doesn't back Sen. Martinez's campaign. I think it is a mistake and should be corrected."]
C.F. Hanif, the editorial ombudsman at the Palm Beach Post, used this term in print one day when he wrote:
Media helped to keep 'the secret'
... Ms. Reid e-mailed her letter ("Don't make women wait days for 'morning after' pills") about the status
of the emergency contraceptive EC. An atomic typo during Spellcheck is my best guess for how EC became
EX in each case, a mistake that still should have been caught.
Atomic Typo: A stenographer for the U.S. Congress generated headlines in the Sudanese media this week by giving the mistaken impression theUnited States conducted nuclear tests in the African country in 1962and 1970. The Sudanese government asked the United States for an explanation about a Web site report that a subcommittee of the U.S.House of Representatives Armed Services Committee had talked about the tests in Sudan. But Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail, who had summoned the U.S. charge d'affaires on hearing the news, said it turned out that the word Sudan was merely a typing error for Sedan, the name of a nuclear test site in Nevada.
So it appears that an atomic typo is a very small typo, one letter or two letters, done in a very tiny, atomic kind of way, like an atomic particle, as if one small difference makes the difference. This, I now believe, is the meaning of the term.
"Please apologize to your atomic typo puzzled friend for me. That was just me having a little fun with a catchy phrase from a reader that has stayed with me since I first reported it in August 1995:
On stationery that showed a beaver saying, ``It's just one dam project after another,'' R. T. of Palm Beach made my day. ``Wow! An atomic typo!'' he wrote, referring to the article that said ``There was blackslapping and handshaking all evening.''
Being an American of African decent, you can imagine I had to smile at that one."
LATER, after a google search, we found that a Mr or Dr Peter J. Farago, Editor of CHEMISTRY IN BRITAIN, now called CHEMISTRY WORLD, wittily presented
observations on "Editing: Good and Bad, Necessary or Not." He sees the
purpose of an editor to be "grit in your oyster" and to avoid famous
atomic typos such as "Unclear Physics." SEE NUCLEAR PHYSICS.