The Language Attic: Propinquity

by Brenda W. Clough

‘Propinquity’ is one of the first words I recall reading in which I could see myself inferring the meaning from the surrounding text. I first ran into it in Rumer Godden’s delightful novel In This House of Brede. It is a novel about a monastery of Benedictine nuns, and quite early on in the work (p. 33 in the hardback first edition) an older sister assesses a younger one: “[She] found herself wondering why Sister Julian had chosen to be a contemplative nun. Could it have been propinquity?” I was in my teens when I first read this book (out of the high school library in Hong Kong, as I recall), and had gotten out of the habit of looking up words in dictionaries because they were never there.

I immediately grasped that the word has to do with closeness, being conveniently near. There’s even a song by the Monkees titled ‘Propinquity.’ I had not realized however that the word is also used in sociology. It’s a law!

“The law of propinquity states that the greater the physical (or psychological) proximity between people, the greater the chance that they will form friendships or romantic relationships. The theory was first crafted by psychologists Leon Festinger, Stanley Schachter, and Kurt Back in what came to be called the Westgate studies conducted at MIT. In the study, the strongest friendships developed between students who lived next to each other on the same floor, or between students who lived on different floors, if one of those students lived near the stairways. In non-scientific terms, the Westgate Studies found that the frequency of contact between students was a strong indicator of future friendship formation.”

Read more about the law (and how it applies to marketing) here. Bit you realize, we do this all the time. The ‘meet cute’ of rom-coms and romance novels? All they are is the regularization of propinquity. You can’t fall in love with someone, or they with you, until you can meet. This is one of the most basic building blocks of fiction.







The Language Attic: Propinquity — 2 Comments

  1. In This House of Brede is a wonderful novel and well deserves attention from modern readers. Too bad it suffers from low propinquity and will never be encountered by most of the people seeking wonderful books…

  2. There’s probably a list somewhere, of novels that take religion and the religious life seriously. I love Godden’s work — she has totally cut herself free from the necessity of sticking to a time line, and yet the work is totally clear. That is very difficult to do.