At the Wording Desk

Increase your vocabulary and understanding of English words

by learning about proximity terms borrowed from Latin

Bill Casselman

“It’s not the pale moon that excites me
That thrills and delights me
Oh no
It’s just the nearness of you
It isn’t your sweet conversation
That brings this sensation
Oh no
It’s just the nearness of you.” ©

Those words from “The Nearness of You” were written in 1938 by pop-song lyricist Ned Washington, with dreamy music composed by Hoagy Carmichael. In 1940 Glenn Miller & his Orchestra had a monster hit recording that featured the voice of Ray Eberle. Had the song been entitled “The Proxemics of Your Corporal Entity,” it is doubtful the 78 would have been so big a chart-topper.

From a freshly coined new buzzword in 1960s sociology, proxemics has become a full-grown branch of people and crowd study. Different people, different cultures, different races keep different amounts of space between each other, for example, when they are talking. How near you are to me is important in real-life interpersonal communication. An American man may observe an Arab male backing slightly away from him when they begin to chat. Americans don’t need as much space between men during a conversation. But for some other people, close quarters when speaking is deeply uncomfortable and tends to make others think Americans are too brass and pushy when talking

The Proximity of Proxemics
The study of these varying interpersonal spatial requirements was named proxemics by American anthropologist Edward T. Hall in 1963. He coined the term by taking the first part of proximity -prox and a scientific suffix -emics from the name of studies like phonemics, to come up with proxemics. Proximity is derived through Middle French from the classical Latin noun proximitas, proximitatis which first referred only to kinship, close family relations and other abstract descriptions of closeness as in nature or time. But nowadays proximity has the less abstract, more concrete, simplified meaning of spatial nearness and this tends to be its only sense. The prime etymon here is the Latin adjective prope ‘near, close’ and its superlative aspect which is proximus, proxima, proximum ‘nearest, closest.’

Proxemics developed into the study not just of interpersonal microspace but of crowd densities in public buildings, people space in the various rooms of private homes, how humans arrange themselves in groups  and even the grid layout of an entire town or new housing development.


Nowadays this noun and its adjective propinquitous sound a pompous note when said aloud or written in ordinary print. In modern English, both forms are used to convey a satiric tone to descriptions of closeness, including sexual proximity. Their root is a classical Latin adverb and preposition prope ‘near, in front of, up close to’ and its derivative adjective propinquus ‘neighbouring, imminent, adjacent, next to.’ English borrowed the form from fifteenth-century Middle French.

This and its adjectives contiguous and contingent are other Latin borrowings from contiguus ‘touching each other’ from the Roman verb contingere ‘to border on, to meet together’ from con- (combining form of the preposition cum ‘with, together’) + tangere ‘to touch.’
Contiguous’ earliest meaning in English was ‘in actual contact, touching at a common boundary, bordering.’

One of our rarest synonyms for closeness in English is yet another gift from ancient Rome. You can guess vicinage is a relative of the more common noun vicinity, both from the Latin adjective vicinus ‘near to, neighbouring,’ as a noun it was a common word for neighbour. The chief sense of vicinage is to name one particular district or neighbourhood or the people inhabiting it.

The older root is widespread in Indo-European languages; the PIE etymon is *weyḱ ‘village.’ In Latin it was a word for a village street, vicus, also meaning ‘a quarter of a city’ or ‘a row of houses’ Cognates include the Greek οἶκος oikos ‘house,’ from which English derives words like economics (originally “financial rules about running a single household”). Sanskrit has vesas, vesman ‘a house.’ A German cognate appears in Weichbild ‘municipal area’ and in the Dutch word for district or quarter wijk.

But a much more productive cognate is English -wick or -wich in hundreds of English place names like Woolwich (woollen goods centre), Butterwick (dairy farms together), Prestwich (group of farms owned by priests), Shapwick (sheep sales), and the place of the airport, Gatwick (goat-farm). Warwick was first a dwelling beside a river-dam or weir. A bailiwick is a district or place under the jurisdiction of a bailie or bailiff, from an Old French word for administrator or manager.

A modest bouquet of wise sayings shall conclude our propinquity.

“The time is near at hand which must determine whether Americans are to be free men or slaves.” George Washington

“When liberty becomes license, dictatorship is near.” Philosopher and historian Will Durant

“Slight not what is near by aiming at what is far.” The Greek dramatist Euripides

written by Bill Casselman, March 10, 2018

Copyright 2018 by William Gordon Casselman