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TWTS: At the epicenter of it all

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Geologically speaking, epicenters are dangerous places to be. They’ve also raised some usage questions which are probably less dangerous, though it may depend on who you ask.

Fortunately for us, Professor Anne Curzan is not dangerous, and recently a colleague felt comfortable throwing an “epicenter” usage question her way. It came up when someone offered a correction for what they perceived as a misuse of epicenter to mean “center.”

“Epicenter” came into English in 1880 as a technical geological term. In this context, it refers to the point on the earth’s surface directly above the subterranean point where an earthquake originates.

By 1908, the Oxford English Dictionary has evidence of “epicenter” being used figuratively to refer to the focal point of a phenomenon, event, disturbance, activity, etc. For example, you could talk about “the epicenter of world finance” or “the epicenter of soccer fandom.”

There are two concerns here. The first is whether “epicenter” should be used figuratively at all. For some people, the answer is a flat-out “no.”

The second concern is if we do use “epicenter” figuratively, should we only use it to refer to negative things, e.g., “the epicenter of the pandemic,” or can we also use it to refer to neutral or positive things, e.g., “the epicenter of youth culture?”

This question showed up in the American Heritage Dictionary’s usage survey in 1996. At that time, 82% of the panel said the negative sense of figurative “epicenter” was fine, and 62% said the neutral sense was fine.

Interestingly, the panel got crankier about both senses of figurative usage over time. By 2008, the aforementioned figures dropped eight and 12 percentage points, respectively.

Regardless, it’s not difficult to find examples of figurative “epicenter” in either sense. And of course, there are also plenty of examples of it in the literal sense.

“I think at this point it would be very fair to say that both the technical sense of ‘epicenter’ and the figurative sense of ‘epicenter ‘are very standard,” said Professor Curzan.

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Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of Weekend Edition at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.