Robert Dickerman: Where will the ‘epicenter’ go next?

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Published: 2/4/2020 1:35:49 PM

At the center of things words have a way of appearing as needed. A good example was in Jan. 29’s Gazette with a word often seen — epicenter.

Epicenter. The center within the center where things are happening! We got along without it for a long time, but once invented (to describe earthquakes), it quickly crept into the language. Apparently, it was needed.

An example from the Gazette: “The CDC ... is screening ... passengers arriving from the epicenter of China’s outbreak.” A good word, but what did it originally mean? Earthquakes occur deep in the earth, and the prefix “epi-” means “above.” So, the original meaning of epicenter was to describe the spot on the surface of the earth that was above the actual center of a quake, which was far underground.

For example, another Jan. 29 Gazette story about a quake in the Caribbean said, “It hit at 2:10 p.m. and the epicenter was ... 10 kilometers beneath the surface.” In earthquake talk this is not accurate. It was the quake center that was 10-kilomters down, the epicenter was the surface directly above this center.

Based on this, the article has it wrong. Or does it? Some interesting language evolution is going on here. What appears to have happened is “epicenter” went out into the world and took on a new meaning — the center of the center — and it this new meaning that is being applied to this earthquake. Who wouldn’t agree that the epicenter was right in the middle where the quake was really quaking? In this sense, the usage is correct. But in earthquake terms, it isn’t. The epicenter was 10-kilometers up on the surface. So, which is correct? The mind reels.

When the language is ready, the word will appear. Sometimes it’s a bit in your face, but other times, like epicenter, it creeps in quietly. Thanks to the Gazette for publishing these two articles (both on the same page!) that capture this moment of lexicographic evolution. Where will epicenter go next? Only time will tell.

Robert Dickerman


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Northampton, MA 01061


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