Epicenter vs. Center

By Simon Kewin

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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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6 Responses 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!

  • Niru Burchett

    The media , including the BBC keep using epicentre instead of centre simply for dramatic effect. Please stop . It is seriously annoying!

  • David

    As a former geologist the incorrect use of epicentre (or epicenter in North America) has enraged me for years. I shout at the radio “no, it’s not the epicentre, it’s just the centre!” – lazy journalism to make something sound more dramatic. Sometimes I’ve even started to shout and then realised that the news item was actually about an earthquake.

    The latest Corvid-19 outbreak has lead to an almost exponential (another often misused term) rise in its incorrect usage.

    I despair.

  • ATG

    If the word “epicenter” is in transition, which I think it is because it is being so widely misused, then I don’t believe it will be used as a synonym for “center.” I believe it was borrowed because the word “center” needed a more specific meaning, such as the “hub” from which something spreads, or around which something accumulates or congregates and is typically considered to be event-specific– not permanent. So a shopping center is a fixed thing where as the epicenter of shopping would be a temporary marketplace set up for an event.

  • Donald Blair

    Let’s try to preserve the distinction between these two words; They are both useful, and epicenter is such a specific word that its meaning should not be smudged.

  • Stuart Moors

    I agree with ATG. There’s a lot of abuse of the English language that makes me shout at the radio/television/newspaper. But my railing at the perpetrators won’t change their insistence on using the word “I” in the accusative or dative, or their utilising manifold morphemes when they could use a few simple words. So, if “epicentre” is acquiring a new meaning, the idea of being in the middle of the flow of something inward or outward seems to me to where it is going. Their will be less people annoying people like you and I (grin).

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