Not an Earth-Shaking Epiphany

A couple of days ago Tom Sumner and I recorded a Common Errors in English Usage podcast with Chris Waigl, founder of the Eggcorn database. She is also studying geophysics in Fairbanks, Alaska; so I asked her what she thought of the common misuse of the word “epicenter” by journalists.

Although she tries to be tolerant of popular shifts in the meaning of words she admitted this is one of her pet peeves.

Here’s my entry on the term from Common Errors in English Usage (p. 106).
The precise location where the earth slips beneath the surface in an earthquake is its hypocenter (or focus) and the spot up on the surface where people feel the quake is its epicenter. Geologists get upset when people use the latter word, designating a point rather removed from the main action, as if it were a synonym of “epitome” and meant something like “most important center.” The British spell it “epicentre.”
 No sooner was our podcast mounted than I ran across this sentence in May 2 issue of The New Yorker:
Epigeneticists, once a subcaste of biologist nudged to the far peripheries of the discipline, now find themselves firmly at its epicenter.
Here are some other recent examples in which “epicenter” is used to mean “center”:
Iowa Offers Tax Incentives In Bid To Become An Epicenter For Innovation In Bio-based MaterialsForbes
How North Carolina became the epicenter of the voting rights battleWashington Post 
Epicenter of bad drivingSun Sentinal
Although it is not the center of an earthquake the epicenter is the spot at which the greatest damage to structures and people on the surface is likely to occur, so the last example makes a sort of sense. But the first example uses “epicenter” in a positive sense, possibly influenced by the current fad for describing desirable innovation as “disruptive.”

The prefix “epi-” is derived from a Greek preposition meaning “upon,” “over,” “attached to,” etc. In the English word “epidermis” refers to the outermost layer of the skin.  An epilog is the bit that comes after the main body of a work. An epigram an even more succinct form of writing.

Not all “epi-” words describe something less central or essential. “Epitome” keeps good company with the popular meaning of “epicenter”: very essence (but see p. 106 to learn how to pronounce the former),  It could even be that the first word is influencing contemporary use of the second.

The use of scientific terms in nonscientific contexts is often sloppy and misleading. (Another prime example—also mentioned by Waigl in the podcast—is “quantum leap,” discussed in my book on pp. 237-8.) However, since the “epicenter” in its journalistic sense is written and read far more commonly than in its scientific one, there’s not much use complaining about this. When The New Yorker's notoriously picky copy editors cave before the irresistible play on words “epigeneticists”/“epicenter” the rest of us should probably not get all shook up.

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