What is an epicenter? Maybe not what you think.

There are a lot of words and phrases that get overused (or used incorrectly) especially in the media or in casual conversation. One that catches my attention every time is epicenter.

You’ve heard it or read it: when something is momentous, it’s not just at the center. It’s the epicenter. It’s difficult to not encounter this word. A quick and sloppy search on the web uncovers phrases like these:

“Manhattan was the epicenter of car culture”
“California is the epicenter of climate change”
“Waxahachie should have been the epicenter of science”
“the Church will become the epicenter of imagination”
“Russia has positioned itself at the epicenter of global politics”
“it was the epicenter of the city’s social scene at the beginning of the nineteenth century”
“it’s the epicenter of who I am as a writer”

And so on. There are literally tens of millions of similar constructions out there (according to Google). All you need to do is fiddle with the search verbiage a little (“viewed as”, “seen as”, “considered the”, etc.) and hordes of additional examples appear.

The first thing this fact —  millions of hits — should tell any writer is that the word epicenter and phrases which include it are probably overused. Recall Orwell’s rules for good writing, one of which is “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” With good reason: the more often a reader encounters something, the more likely she is to tune it out. If you want your words to have an impact, they need to be striking. I intend no wordplay with the previous sentence: while both “impact” and “striking” are used metaphorically, there’s a reason that folks who study the use of words turn to this kind of language. Good writing figuratively slaps the reader in the face, hits him over the head, or punches him in the gut. Which, by some design, brings us to my next point about epicenter.

Epicenter is a great word for metaphorical use. The problem is that it’s frequently used without attention to what the metaphor actually suggests. Sometimes people who use epicenter get it right, but very often they don’t. For example, I listed seven examples from the web above; I’d argue that none of them use the term correctly. (Without delving into the context, I acknowledge the possibility that a few of them might, but a few of them are nonsense.)

What does epicenter mean, literally? I’ve scanned several dictionaries, and I would usually consider the OED to be definitive. However in this case, they’ve fallen down on the job over there, referring their entry for epicenter back to the latinate epicentrum and restricting their definition to the purely technical (with a notation of “Also fig.” to denote that it can be used figuratively, and one weak figurative example from 1970). Merriam-Webster does a better job, even with its simplified entry, but American Heritage comes closest to nailing down modern usage of this word, with a revealing and interesting entry (which I’ll return to shortly).

The strict geological definition of epicenter is technical but simple: it’s the point on the surface of the Earth directly above where an earthquake occurs. This isn’t always of value to geologists, who are concerned with numerous other factors, but for most of the rest of us it’s a useful piece of information.

Merriam-Webster provides a second definition of simply “center” for epicenter. Which I have to say isn’t good enough, at least not without some explanation. An epicenter really isn’t the center of anything. The epi part is Greek and means “on” (or perhaps “above” is a better idiomatic translation of how it’s used in English). The reason that I think M-W is a little sloppy here is that they’ve thrown up their hands with this concise definition (“center“). Yes, it’s used this way, but a little explanation is in order. Which is why I think AHD5 has done such a nice job with their definition.

AHD provides the technical definition first, but then they resist simplification. Their second definition is (the bold is their usage example):

The focal point of a usually harmful or unpleasant phenomenon or event; the center: stood at the epicenter of the international crisis.

They include “the center” here, but elaborate, offering useful guidance. But then they go even further with a usage note (reproduced here in full):

Usage Note: Epicenter is properly a geological term identifying the point of the earth’s surface directly above the focus of an earthquake. No doubt this is why the Usage Panel approves of figurative extensions of its use in dangerous, destructive, or negative contexts. In our 2008 survey, 74 percent accepted the sentence identifying a country as the epicenter for terrorist financing. The Panel is less fond but still accepting of epicenter when it is used to refer to the focal point of neutral or positive events. Fifty percent approved of the word in a sentence identifying New York City as the epicenter of European immigration. These percentages are both down a little from those in our 1996 survey, but not significantly.

That’s the kind of information dictionaries should include. A clear majority of their panel accepts the figurative (metaphorical) use of epicenter in a negative sense, but they split on whether neutral and positive senses are acceptable.

I’d go slightly further, adding some subtle tweaks to the figurative use. I have a good reason for doing so.

As I noted earlier, epicenter is a great word. It’s very evocative and packs a lot of punch — and for those reasons, I think it should be used sparingly and carefully. I have no strong feelings about whether it carries a positive or negative connotation, but for the best metaphorical use I feel it should be used only when the epicenter referred to (a place, an event, etc.) is one which causes a major impact — in an industry, throughout society, to a way of thinking, and so on. An appropriate epicenter is one from which strong and important effects radiate. It’s not just a thing at the center.

We can use some of the examples above to demonstrate. Take the California line. “California is the epicenter of climate change” is a wrong use (perhaps “the epicenter of climate change legislation” was meant, which is better). Changing it to something along the lines of “California’s efforts to anticipate and adapt to the new normal make it the epicenter of climate change policy” would be a much stronger use.

The Russia example is another good one. “Russia has positioned itself at the epicenter of global politics” is a terrible use. One doesn’t position oneself at an epicenter after the fact: the word best describes an active propagation. One doesn’t move to an epicenter, reacting to change, one is an epicenter, causing that change. In this case, the writer has simply added two syllables (“epi“) when center is what was meant. That’s weak, fluffy writing that shouldn’t have slipped through, and the weight that epicenter could (or should) have brought to bear was lost. Epicenter doesn’t belong in this sentence, but if you have to use it a better construction would have been something like “Russia has become the epicenter of national identity politics” or “Russia’s policies have unexpectedly made it the epicenter of global politics.” The point is that these rephrasings make Russia an active player, one which causes change that then ripples outward, not an entity which merely reacts to a state of affairs.

That’s my advice for using epicenter:

  • DON’T use epicenter when you only mean center. If all you’re doing is adding two syllables in an attempt to seem more knowledgeable or authoritative, resist the urge. Stick with center.
  • DO use epicenter when you don’t simply mean center, but when you are also metaphorically referring to a place (or an event, or a moment in time) from which great changes radiated outward. Not only is that a correct use of the term, but it’s also a better metaphorical use. Anything can be a center — but an epicenter is special.

About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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One Response to What is an epicenter? Maybe not what you think.

  1. Thanks for a very informative and interesting blog about a word that upsets a lot of people. Personally, I’d go for confining it to negative events, but I like your idea that it has to have an impact, to make something radiate outwards. And to be fair to the OED, that entry hasn’t been fully updated yet. The Oxford Dictionary of English online does a slightly better job, though you may find the definition somewhat lacking: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/epicentre

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