It's no moving van – it's a mobility service truck

The Monitor's language columnist sees mobility everywhere and hopes to see it back on an upward track soon.

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As I looked out my window down to the street the other Saturday morning, I couldn't help noticing that I couldn't in fact see very much of the street, because of a large vehicle parked out front.

It must be moving day for somebody, I thought. But the lettering on the truck identified it as part of a certain well-known company's "mobility service."

Hmm, whatever happened to "van lines"?

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Van lines is alive and well, thank you, and still apparently the more common term for, well, the people who provide the big trucks that take over the whole street for a day at a time. But mobility is hot, too. It's one of those words that seem to be everywhere, but with several different distinct but related sets of usages. All of them have roughly similar importance, so that any of them are likely to pop up in the first page of results of a random Google search.

Mobility is essentially the ability to move or be moved. It's a quality much desired in computing. Everyone wants to be "untethered" – not tied down to a specific location. I would have guessed mobile computing and telephony to be the usages that the search algorithms deem most "relevant." But mobility for the disabled is a big field, too. Mobility shows up in discussions of scooters, wheelchairs, and all sorts of related devices.

The logistics industry uses mobility as an umbrella term to cover all manner of stuff in motion – trucking, shipping, aviation, transport, vehicle rental, and the like. That's how a "mobility service" vehicle ended up parked at my front door the other day.

The differences in the sound symbolism between "moving van" and "mobility service" are striking. Could that be a factor in the change of terminology in the logistics sector? Moving is a short word with a long sound. "We're moving!" someone says: It sounds open-ended, with its long stressed "o" and its vivid "v." It suggests progress and adventure, but oh so much work.

Mobility, on the other hand, for all its four syllables, has a neat sort of pack-up-and-go quality. Its long vowel, the "o," is in an unstressed syllable; the following syllables all have clipped short vowels, as if boxed up in tidy white cartons by a wiry guy with a clipboard and a felt-tip pen.

The fourth area of mobility that seems relevant here is the social kind. We're used to the phrase upward mobility. It's a bit of sociological jargon that goes back to the late 1940s but then entered the common parlance 20 years or so later.

Unfortunately, in a time of economic crisis, there are plenty of reminders around that mobility can go in both directions, and that what goes up also can go down.

If the ancient Romans were around today, they might consider all this mobility stuff, especially communications, to be the province of Mercury, the messenger god, and their god of trade and commerce. His name is thought to derive from the Latin word merx, which gives us merchandise, commerce, and other trade-related words. Mercury the planet got its name from Mercury the messenger. Mercury, the metal, got its name in turn from the planet. It was the metal's quicksilver ("living silver") mobility that led medieval Europeans to associate it with the planet, which zips around the sun every 88 days.

All this mobility is great. So is being "untethered." I hope it doesn't just mean we've run out of string.

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