Mind your language

How did being connected become ‘connectivity’?

21 February 2020

10:00 PM

21 February 2020

10:00 PM

Facebook recently told readers of the Sun that satellites could ‘bring broadband connectivity to rural regions where internet connectivity is lacking’. Sajid Javid in happier days not long ago told the Telegraph that HS2 would ‘create greater North-South connectivity’.

Connectivity seems an unnecessarily abstract way of expressing it. E.M. Forster didn’t attach the epigraph ‘Only connectivity’ to Howards End. It was not the Countess of Huntingdon’s Connectivity.

No, the novelist, with the epigraph ‘Only connect’, wanted to connect ‘the prose and the passion’ and the Countess wanted her Connexion to be precisely whatever she said it was at any one time, whether Methodist, or Calvinist or dissenting.

The dominant application of connectivity since it was coined in the last decade of the 19th century has been to solid geometry. I confess I don’t understand the technicalities there. In recent decades scientists, such as those studying brain networks, have used connectivity as an abstract noun in preference to connectedness.

But until recent years and months, the ordinary way of talking about being linked up to sewers, telephone wires, water mains, electricity supplies or the internet would have been to ask if people were connected (or disconnected if they didn’t pay their bills). To speak in terms of connectivity is like talking of too much darkness instead of saying it is too dark.

Yet my complaint about undue abstraction is not always supported by the historical accidents of language. Take celebrity. As ‘the state of being famous’, it was used by Chaucer in translating Boethius. But a celebrity in the concrete has been celebrated (or mocked) for the past two centuries. Until the last few years it was also common to speak of people related to the monarch as royalties. Now the tendency is to call them royals.

With connectivity, the process has not been one of employing an abstract term to refer to individuals, as in the cases of celebrities or royalties, but to abandon any notion of real, breakable (or mendable) connections in favour of the concept in the gross and general.

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