The Grammarphobia Blog

Epicenter piece

Q: Would you do a piece on the misuse of “epicenter,” a pet peeve of mine? The epicenter of an earthquake is the point on the earth’s surface that corresponds to the quake’s center, which is actually beneath the surface. The word is now used to mean the very center of something, as in “the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic.”

A: Strictly speaking, “epicenter” is a geological term describing the point at the earth’s surface that’s directly above the underground focus of an earthquake. (The underground focus of a quake is called the “hypocenter.”)

But you’ll be disappointed to learn that a fuzzier figurative use of “epicenter” is now accepted as standard English, according to both Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.)

Figuratively, “epicenter” simply means the focal point or center of some event or situation. American-Heritage, however, says this figurative use generally involves “dangerous, destructive, or negative” situations.

Eight-two percent of the A-H Usage Panel approves of the figurative use of “epicenter” in reference to dangerous situations, but only 61 percent accepts its use in positive or neutral contexts.

So these usage mavens would overwhelmingly accept a phrase like “the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic,” but they would not quite so overwhelmingly accept one like “the epicenter of Paris Hilton’s social life.”

Speaking of “epi” words, there’s also confusion about “epidemic” as opposed to “endemic” and the much-abused “pandemic.”

A disease is “epidemic” when it becomes widespread within a specific community or population at a particular time. It’s “endemic” when it exists all the time in (or is native to) a given community or population. It’s “pandemic” when it spreads throughout a country or a continent or the world.

An easy way to remember: the prefix “epi” means upon or close to; “en” means in or within; “pan” means all.

I think newscasters and writers love to use “pandemic” because they think it’s scarier than “epidemic,” which I suppose it is!

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