Epicenter vs. Center

By Simon Kewin

In an article on the BBC website just recently, the head of a computer game industry body described the city of Dundee as “the epicentre for the industry in Scotland”. A little earlier, in an article about renewable energy on the same site, the First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, described the city of Glasgow as the “epicentre” for renewable energy engineering.

Now, either someone has been secretly building a network of vast tunnels underneath Scottish cities, or these are two examples of a widely misused and misunderstood word. Epicenter (epicentre in British English) refers to a point over or above the centre of something. It is most commonly used to identify the point on the Earth’s surface that lies directly above the focus of an earthquake.

Increasingly, however, the term is used in a vague and lazy way to make the word “center” seem more dramatic and interesting. Reporters are forever “standing at the epicenter” of something, apparently unaware that the events they describe must, logically, be happening underground.

Of course, you could argue that “epicenter” is a word whose meaning is in transition; that it is acquiring a secondary sense of, simply, “center” (especially the center of something dramatic or calamitous.) For now, the best advice is not to confuse the two. Center and epicenter are two perfectly good words, meaning two different things.

You can read more from Simon on his blog, Spellmaking.

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1 Response to “Epicenter vs. Center”

  • Todd

    THANK YOU! The NY Times web site today reports, “Hyper-Partisan North Carolina Is Epicenter of Voting Battles.” But no – it is the CENTER of voting battles. Your article is spot on; we are confusing the use of two perfectly good and specific words. Don’t do that!

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