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How ‘Close’ Is Your ‘Proximity’?

From The New Yorker to BuzzFeed, the Irksome Phrase Still Thrives After 150 Years of Redundancy

Train Hits

The warning echoes beneath the girdered ceiling of Boston’s South Station, and in the cramped bustle of New York’s Penn Station, on a TSA loop of repeating announcements: “Keep personal items in close proximity.”

Any prerecorded phrase, repeated often enough, can drive one mad. But that last two-word phrase is especially wretched.

“Close proximity” irks me viscerally, like chewing tinfoil. We are bombarded with it daily, not just by the TSA in train stations and airports, but also in the news, and even in literature.

For starters, it is redundant. Is there another variety of proximity than one that is close? Far proximity perhaps? Moderate proximity? There is not.

And it is wordy. “Stay close to your bags” works well, as does “keep your bags nearby.” If you like the sound of the word, you can use “keep your bags in proximity.”

It is hard to account for the popularity of the phrase. Maybe it’s pleasing to the ear. There’s the symmetrical arc of the five-syllable phrase, the two hard consonants kicking it off, accented on the unlikely third—that SIM sound made by “xim”—then trailing gently off. There’s a strong echo of the Latin root, proximitas, so proximity is a 50-cent word that suggests higher learning. The phrase, coming off our tongues, makes us feel smart, educated, erudite.

However pleasing it sounds, it’s a loathsome phrase for yet another reason: It seems we modify proximity with “close” because we do not trust the audience to understand proximity’s meaning when it stands alone. Anyone confused by “proximity,” we reason, will surely understand “close proximity.” It’s a patronizing attitude.

It is not surprising that the phrase has worked its way into bureaucratese, the hallmark of which is a redundant and long-winded surfeit of excessive verbiage. So it is easy to understand why TSA used the phrase in its announcement—“close proximity” carries the patina of officialdom, in a way that “nearby” or “close” alone do not.

Anyone confused by “proximity,” we reason, will surely understand “close proximity.” It’s a patronizing attitude.

But it is surprising how many good writers use the phrase. Robert Galbraith, a.k.a. J.K. Rowling, used the phrase four times in the lively and fun novel The Cuckoo’s Calling.

It sneaks past New Yorker editors, as in this piece on the paleo diet by Pulitzer Prize winning author Elizabeth Kolbert: “And, by living in close proximity to their equally crowded farm animals, early agriculturalists helped to bring into being a whole set of diseases that jumped from livestock to people.”

John McPhee, master practitioner and teacher of nonfiction style, dropped it into an otherwise exciting passage in his book The Founding Fish: “In close proximity to the canoe, one shad was a good deal more vigorous than the other had been.”

And the eloquent Gay Talese used it in Thy Neighbor’s Wife: “During the day he strolled through the business districts, noting the close proximity of Woolworth’s and J.C. Penney to the local massage parlor and X-rated theater.”

Consider those three sentences for a moment. Would they read any differently if an editor had struck the word “close”? I think not. And it’s not a matter of degrees. When writers want to indicate a more notable nearness, they typically modify the phrase with such, as in “such close proximity.” (Here, again, “such proximity” has the exact same effect.)

The phrase even taints journalism—which is surprising because journalists and editors are always working to pare a few syllables to fit ever-shrinking print news holes. It has appeared more than 4,000 times in the New York Times, starting in 1852. In 1864, the paper used it to describe Sherman’s march: “Richmond papers of Monday last are received. They report Gen. SHERMAN to be moving on, and in close proximity to Savannah.”

The phrase seems appropriate there, the sort of thing you would expect to read in musty archives. Oddly, though, the antiquated phrase appeals equally to younger scribes. BuzzFeed has used the phrase more than 200 times in just three years, in articles such as “You Might be Cleaning Your Penis Wrong.”

For all the wrong reasons, the phrase is probably here to stay, and I’ll try to tune it out, in Penn Station and elsewhere. Anyway, it’s obvious there are other stilted redundancies cluttering our lexicon. Hell, it’s blatantly obvious.