English English language Etymology Expression Usage Word origin

Is “close proximity” redundant?

Q: I would love to hear your perspective on “close proximity.” If “in proximity to” means “close to,” what does “in close proximity to” mean? Including “close” seems redundant to me, but it feels odd to leave it out.

A: Well, the phrase “in close proximity” isn’t very graceful (we’d prefer “near” or “close to”), but we don’t consider it redundant, as we’ll explain.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “proximity” as “nearness” or “the fact, condition, or position of being near or close by in space.”

So theoretically the noun “proximity” should need no help from an adjective like “close.”

But theory is one thing and fact is another. In reality, there are degrees of nearness, so it’s reasonable to indicate how near with the use of an adjective like “close,” “closer,” or “closest.”

Used by itself, “proximity” sometimes seems inadequate, which may be why the naked word feels odd to you.  A statement like “There’s no restaurant in proximity to my apartment” could mean within a city block or a ten-minute drive.

As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says, “Of course there are degrees of proximity, and close proximity simply emphasizes the closeness.” The usage guide gives many examples, including these:

“Swallow means porch-bird, and for centuries and centuries their nests have been placed in the closest proximity to man” (from Richard Jefferies’s book The Open Air, 1885).

“Mr. Beard and Miss Compton disagreed on the distance of meat from heat, probably because Mr. Beard had in mind a smaller fire-bed to which the steak could  be in closer proximity” (from the New York Times, 1954).

“The herb [tansy] works only on plants in very close proximity” (from the New York Times Magazine, 1980).

This OED has dozens of examples of the usage, dating back to the early 1800s. Here’s one from an 1872 travel guide to the English Lake District: “Owing to the close proximity to the sea.”

Elsewhere in the same guide, we found this example in a description of the city of Carlisle: “It dates back to the time of the Romans, and was in close proximity to the wall of Hadrian.”

The word “proximity” came into English from the French proximité (near relationship), the OED says. It was derived from the Latin noun proximitas (nearness or kinship), which came from the adjective proximus (nearest, next).    

When first recorded in English, in 1480, “proximity” referred to blood relationship or kinship (as in the phrase “proximity of blood,” first recorded in the 16th century and still occasionally used).

The noun was soon being used to refer to other kinds of nearness—time, space, distance, and so on. Today, “proximity” in relation to distance is the dominant usage.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the Latin proximus (nearest) was the superlative form of an “unrecorded” Latin word that’s been reconstructed as proque (near).

This reconstructed word, Ayto adds, was “a variant of prope, from which English gets approach and propinquity.”

Another English relative, Ayto says, is “approximate,” which ultimately comes from the Latin verb proximare (“come near”).

We’ll close with another example from the M-W usage guide. It’s from Iolanthe (1882), by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan.

But then the prospect of a lot
Of dull M.P.’s in close proximity,
All thinking for themselves, is what
No man can face with equanimity.

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