On the center

« previous post | next post »

From Jonathan Falk:

When Wuhan is called the "epicenter" of the coronavirus outbreak, do people know that epicenter is a term borrowed from geology and is just a metaphor for what is in fact the "center" of an outbreak, or are they fooled by the "epi-" prefix to think it has something to do with "epidemic?"


The source of the English prefix is the Greek preposition ἐπί meaning "on". The OED gives the etymology of epidemic as

< Old French ypidime, impidemie, French épidemie, < late Latin epidemia, epidimia, Greek ἐπιδημία prevalence of an epidemic, < ἐπιδήμιος, < ἐπί + δῆμος people.

i.e. something like "on the people". And of course a geological epicenter is "The point on the earth's surface that overlies the subterranean focus of an earthquake" — but the OED cites figurative uses meaning "A centre of activity, energy, or disturbance" going back to 1908, less than 30 years after the first geological use:

1908 Japan Weekly Mail 26 Dec. 783/2 Yesterday, as it were, the epicentre of the world's sea-power lay on the waters of north-western Europe.

My own current association with the prefix epi- has been the experience of epigastric (= "on the stomach") pain, starting during the second quarter of the Super Bowl, leading a little later to emergency gall bladder removal, from which I'm still recovering.


  1. Doctor Duck said,

    February 15, 2020 @ 7:24 pm

    I doubt many are using *epicenter* here because of any supposed connection to *epidemic*. *Epicenter* is used all the time by folks who likely feel it's somehow a 'stronger' version of plain *center*.

  2. Jenny Chu said,

    February 15, 2020 @ 8:45 pm

    I think it is neither. I think that writers find it a convenient way to put emphasis on the word "center."

    What is the term for the phenomenon where bombastic or exaggerated terms are so over-used that they lose their meaning? I am thinking of the fact that at a conference, every speech is now a keynote speech; every new shop is a flagship; one doesn't start a project, but always kick-starts the project (or the meeting or whatever).

    The plain terms, which ought to be sufficient, are no longer used.

    Similarly, I believe that when speaking or writing (sometimes hysterically) of this soon-to-be apocalyptic situation, a journalist feels compelled to abandon the Plain Style and can no longer write simply that the disease was identified in Wuhan nor that the center of the epidemic is Wuhan – no, they must say that it is the EPIcenter, which seems more dramatic, the ultimate center, the super center. And once that has become the norm, all the other journalists must follow lest their prose seem dull and dry.

  3. Philip Taylor said,

    February 15, 2020 @ 9:08 pm

    Jenny Chu has expressed perfectly my own feelings regarding "eipcentre" and its ilk.

  4. unekdoud said,

    February 15, 2020 @ 9:46 pm

    I do agree that for any kind of widespread disaster or tragedy journalists tend to use epicenter rather than center. However, perhaps in the case of a pandemic it is metaphorically fitting, since just like an earthquake we commonly notice the virus via the trail of destruction it leaves behind.

  5. Roscoe said,

    February 15, 2020 @ 10:00 pm

    @Jenny Chu: If writers from a century ago could see this trend, they’d turn over in their graves – or, in modern parlance, they’d be spinning in their graves.

  6. Haamu said,

    February 15, 2020 @ 11:12 pm

    Those who complain that epicenter is merely a highfalutin center might be missing a metaphorical nuance. For any given earthquake, the epicenter is not merely the spot on the earth's surface above the center of causation, but it is also likely to be the spot (above or below the surface of the earth) where the damage is most severely felt or the impact is most clearly seen. Metaphorically, then, it seems to me a fine usage to talk about, for instance, a financial crisis whose center of causation might be on Wall Street but whose epicenter is in some county in Michigan where 60% of the homes have been foreclosed on. In that sense, no matter where the virus arose, Wuhan definitely feels like its epicenter right now.

  7. Tim Leonard said,

    February 15, 2020 @ 11:38 pm

    Using epicenter also suggests that the epidemic is a crisis similar in scale to a newsworthy earthquake.

  8. cliff arroyo said,

    February 16, 2020 @ 1:52 am

    My non-etymological intuition on the meaning of 'epicenter' is that it denotes the starting point of some phenomenon which then radiates (metaphorically) outward.

  9. Breffni said,

    February 16, 2020 @ 2:21 am

    To the extent that "Epicentre" is used for events rather than places/populations/scenes etc., the metaphor from seismology still seems to have life in it. My impression is that most journalists who write "the epicentre of the outbreak" would not write "the epicentre of the outback".

    But you can find plenty of examples like "Once the Epicenter of New York Jewry…", "City Hall is not just the epicenter of New York City's government", "Socialize at the epicenter of New York City's all-hours indie locale", "the epicenter of Dublin's Georgian quarter", suggesting that it does for some mean something like "dead centre".

    @myl: Very sorry to hear about your health troubles. Get well soon.

  10. Jon said,

    February 16, 2020 @ 2:34 am

    Ground zero is the counterpart of epicenter. It designated the point on the ground directly below the location of the explosion that destroyed Hiroshima (or any other air-blast nuclear explosion). Later, of course, adapted for other purposes.

  11. AlexB said,

    February 16, 2020 @ 2:50 am

    And of course an epicenter is way more epic than a regular center.

  12. Andreas Johansson said,

    February 16, 2020 @ 2:59 am

    I think "epicentre" (still?) usually carries an implication of "origin" that is lacking in plain "centre".

    (This might still be alive in Breffni's City Hall example, if the writer imagined governing as something originates in City Hall and radiates outwards to affect the rest of the city.)

  13. Stephen Goranson said,

    February 16, 2020 @ 5:37 am

    Speedy recovery from gallbladder episode.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    February 16, 2020 @ 7:28 am

    The anthropologist, C. Scott Littleton, published this chapter in a book edited by me: "Were Some of the Xinjiang Mummies 'Epi-Scythians'? An Excursus in Trans-Eurasian Folklore and Mythology." In Victor H. Mair, The Bronze Age and Early Iron Age Peoples of Eastern Central Asia (Washington D.C. and Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Man and the University of Pennsylvania Museum, 1998), vol. 2, pp. 746-766.

    I will be making a post about the Scythians and Ossetians within a day or two.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    February 16, 2020 @ 7:36 am

    We are all Mark's epigones. May he swiftly recover from his recent operation.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    February 16, 2020 @ 7:39 am

    From AHDEL, 5th ed.:

    epi- or ep-


    1. On; upon: epiphyte.
    2. Over; above: epicenter.
    3. Around: epicarp.
    4. Close to; near: epicalyx.
    5. Besides: epiphenomenon.
    6. After: epilogue.
    7. Chemistry Epimer of: epitestosterone.

    [Greek, from epi, upon; see epi in Indo-European roots.]

  17. H Stephen Straight said,

    February 16, 2020 @ 2:26 pm

    I share cliff arroyo and Andreas Johansson's default interpretation of epicenter to refer to the starting point of an expanding event whether or not that point also suffered the heavier effects of the event that the other places to which it spread.

    @myl: Glad to see your surgery apparently hasn't slowed you down. Maybe you need to cut back on football, though.

  18. Sniffnoy said,

    February 16, 2020 @ 2:26 pm

    Yeah, people just use "epicenter" for disasters because of its association with earthquakes…

  19. H Stephen Straight said,

    February 16, 2020 @ 2:28 pm

    … suffered heavier effects of the event than … – sorry

  20. Rachael Churchill said,

    February 16, 2020 @ 3:53 pm

    I think Doctor Duck and Jenny Chu are right, and I suspect this is also the reason people misuse "penultimate" to mean "ultimate".

  21. Francisco said,

    February 16, 2020 @ 3:54 pm

    As the epicenter is somewhat remote from the underground locus of an earthquake, thus less central than the center itself, this is another case where, as with 'quantum leap', popular usage has done a number on the original scientific meaning.

  22. Steve Morrison said,

    February 16, 2020 @ 8:21 pm

    We discussed this usage of “epicenter” some years ago in the “Penultimate” thread.

  23. George said,

    February 17, 2020 @ 4:31 am

    @Steve Morrisson

    That's an interesting thread that you linked to. On correcting teachers specifically, I've always been a firm believer in the discreet word at the end of class. It's only fair to give someone an out. If they don't set things right at the next opportunity to do so (and it's never hard to find some way to do it that leaves dignity intact), then the gloves have to come off. Anyone who knowingly leaves a class misinformed shouldn't be teaching.

  24. Philip Taylor said,

    February 17, 2020 @ 5:35 am

    Many thanks for the "Penultimate" thread link, Steve. I particularly enjoyed the following contribution by JL:

    June 13, 2011 @ 2:07 pm

    […] So if the epicenter is above the center, and the hypocenter is […] below it, then where's the damn quake?

  25. mark dowson said,

    February 17, 2020 @ 6:27 am

    R L Trask's entry on epicentre in "Mind the Gaffe" is worth quoting in full:
    The epicentre of an earthquake is the point on the earth's surface directly above the focus of the earthquake. Do not write drivel like *Galliano is at the epicentre of women's fashion: all this means is 'Galliano is important in women's fashion, and I am a pretentious twit'

  26. ajay said,

    February 17, 2020 @ 6:56 am

    Do not write drivel like *Galliano is at the epicentre of women's fashion

    unless you intend to imply that women's fashion is currently a disaster, and that is Galliano's fault. Which, fair enough.

    Ground Zero, I think, goes back to Trinity; at any rate the various shelters and observation posts were designated as West 10,000 (yards) and so on.

  27. KeithB said,

    February 17, 2020 @ 9:37 am

    Well there are the Quakes in Cucamonga, Ca, who call their stadium the "Epicenter"

  28. Richard Hershberger said,

    February 17, 2020 @ 11:44 am

    Sadly, I didn't think to note the source, but I was once delighted to read a news account of an earthquake that explained that the epicenter was actually below ground. It may be that many journalists use the word as a nuanced metaphor, but I always wonder what they would answer, if asked to explain the strict meaning of the word.

  29. Andrew Usher said,

    February 17, 2020 @ 9:38 pm

    But that is actually wrong – the epicenter is defined as the point on the surface directly above the actual center; hence the name. Saying the epicenter is below ground is false erudition.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  30. Rachael Churchill said,

    February 18, 2020 @ 4:34 am

    I think that was Richard's point.

  31. Coby Lubliner said,

    February 18, 2020 @ 11:28 am

    Using "epicenter" with a meaning that's different from the technical one in seismology is the same as using "quantum leap", "least common denominator" or "gridlock" in ways that don't correspond to their meanings in physics, mathematics and traffic engineering, respectively. I never hear any objections from specialists in these fields to the lay use of these terms. It seems that only linguists are bothered by the non-technical use of "passive voice" and such.

  32. Brett said,

    February 20, 2020 @ 10:19 am

    @Francisco, Coby Lubliner: The popular use of "quantum leap" is fine. It does not match the technical meaning perfectly, but it captures the essential point. This have previously been discussed in the comments here: https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=12528 and here: https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=40218

  33. chris said,

    February 20, 2020 @ 7:48 pm

    @Steve Morrison: If it occurred several years ago, then there have been many threads since then, not just one, so it wasn't the penultimate thread after all. Fortunately for those of us who enjoy this sort of thing.

    On a more serious note, I heard a news story today claiming that coronavirus may have spread to humans from bats, so maybe Wuhan actually IS the epicenter, since many bats spend the day in caves.

  34. Ellen K. said,

    February 21, 2020 @ 11:52 am

    @Coby Lubliner

    There's a difference between using a term metaphorically outside the area it applies, doing so in a way that doesn't really fit the term's meaning, versus misusing the term within the area it applies. People who say "quantum leap" aren't talking about particle physics. People taking about "least common denominator" aren't talking about math. But people who use the term "passive voice" are talking about language. They aren't metaphorically applying it to some non-language thing.

    Similarly, using "epicenter" to mean the actual center when talking about something other than earthquakes is one thing. Using it to mean the center, or something other than the point on the earth's surface above the center, when actually talking about earthquakes, as in Richard's example, is another.

RSS feed for comments on this post