I passed a real estate advertising sign – “PRIME REAL ESTATE NOW AVAILABLE” – a couple of blocks away from where I live, on a commercial property – a once and probably future restaurant on the ground floor of an office building – in downtown Toronto. The previous occupant hadn’t been forced out of business by the global pandemic; it had closed some time earlier, due (I am told) to damage caused by a truly Biblical cloudburst and, I guess, some rather astonishing drain-pipe decisions. The sign, atypically, was in rather forbidding white letters on a black background, but that wasn’t what struck me the most. It was the line above the main all-caps line. It said “Be at the epicentre of it all…”
I really don’t think that’s an optimal word choice. But, hey, at least this is Toronto, not LA or San Francisco or Vancouver or another city with a notable earthquake risk. On the other hand, there is an epidemic – sorry, a pandemic – going on at the moment, and Toronto is, relatively, a bit of a hot spot in Canada… you know, what they call an…
So, OK, I am not by inclination a heavy-handed prescriptivist (unless you pay me, and even then only while and where you’re paying me). I may be an editor with more than 20 years of experience, but I also have a master’s degree in linguistics, and I know how this language stuff actually works. But that doesn’t mean that I have to like absolutely every usage, however popular. And the very broad use of epicentre I see so often currently kind of… gets on my nerves, I guess.
I mean, epicentre (or, and I’m throwing this in here just once for the Americans, epicenter) is a word with a nicely refined sense, one that means something more and other than centre or hot spot. Yes, yes, I understand that people feel that longer words are stronger and more technical; there’s a reason that punctilious prose uses utilize rather than use, for instance. Obviously that is in play with epicentre, along with whatever resonances of epic it might have, and there’s no doubt that it’s gained an air of importance by dint of the company it keeps. (What’s the difference between a centre and an epicentre? A historic event can take place at a centre, but an historic event takes place at an epicentre!)
But what makes epicentre something more than centre with extra épice? What gives it the extra jab, as with an épée or an EpiPen? Well, yes, it is the same epi as in EpiPen. As you may know, EpiPen gets its name from epinephrine, which is what it delivers. And that epi – the same one as in episodic, epitaph, epilogue, epitome, and so one – is from Greek ἐπί, which means ‘on’. (The nephrine is not from Greek for ‘nerves’, sorry, so I can’t make a “getting on my nerves” joke; it’s from νεφρός nefros, ‘kidney’.)
So epicentre means ‘on centre’? Sort of. English got it from German, in which K.A.L. von Seebach invented Epicentrum in 1873. He used it in the sense that is still its most specific technical sense: ‘the point on the earth’s surface directly above the focus of an earthquake’. Earthquakes tend to start somewhere underground, but we (most of us) experience them on the surface, so it’s useful to specify the spot on the surface that’s closest to where the actual thing happened. It’s the mirror image of ground zero, which means (or anyway meant between about 1945 and 2001) the point on the earth’s surface directly below the airburst of an atomic bomb. (In fact, epicenter is quite literally the mirror of ground zero in the military use that refers to the spot directly above an underground bomb test.)
But, like ground zero, epicentre is such a catchy and impactful term, it’s been borrowed for use in other disasters – and, sometimes, for use in other things that aren’t as disastrous. When I look in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, I see people writing of epicentres of (or for) Ornithoptera diversity, skiing, scandals, hemp, a global battle of the soul, commerce, culture, coffee, culinary creativity, bad feeling, influence and power, nightlife, design, technology, violence, “this whole twisted fantasy of yours,” and soooooo much more.
So, yeah, this word has come to be used so widely in so many senses, I’m almost tempted to say its meaning has no epicentre. But even in the looser sense, that’s not true – there are definitely things that it’s most often applied to – and, really, if we want to be as close to its epicentre as etymology will allow, we must note that its origin, beneath the surface of our language, is the earthquake sense. And, more broadly, it does retain a negative tone. Especially these days, since every damn place that has a spike in Covid-19 numbers is being called an “epicentre” in the news.
So be it. Words have figurative uses. There’s nothing keeping you from using epicentre to mean all sorts of things: that spot on your tummy where you can feel the borborygmus within, the office candy bowl, your latest crush, or even an empty restaurant site a short block north of Yonge and Front in Toronto. But at a certain point it gets to be like using a crystal goblet as a coffee mug. It’s not that you can’t use it for that; it’s just that it’s not the best thing for it. And when you see someone using a crystal goblet all the time to drink whatever, you begin to think that they just want to make sure you know they have one.
And, yeah, I see you have one. So do I. So do we all. I’m not shook. Get a nice mug, and save your crystal for a more fitting occasion.