Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.


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The epicenter is directly above the earthquake...
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Here’s a bit of a strict rule from the The Economist Style Guide:

Epicentre means that point on the earth’s surface above the centre of an earthquake. To say that Mr Putin was at the epicentre of the dispute suggests that the argument took place underground.

I guess The Economist wouldn’t like the following then:

Cornwall Council is confident its plans for a rural epicentre for electric car transport will get funding. (From the BBC website.)

US bank chiefs face grilling as Financial Inquiry seeks epicentre of crisis (Headline from the Telegraph online)

Ahem. And this from, er, The Economist online:

Companies such as Ushahidi (Swahili for ‘testimony’) leverage crowd-sourced crisis information around the globe by mapping the GPS location of text messages from citizens at the epicentre of conflicts. (That would be conflicts taking place underground, according to the aforementioned style guide.)


While I obviously agree with The Economist’s definition of ‘epicentre’ I think it is being a little prescriptive. The Oxford Dictionary of English also defines ‘epicentre’ as:

The central point of something. Typically a difficult or unpleasant situation.

It gives the following example:

The epicentre of labour militancy was the capital itself.

It then notes that the word originated in the mid-nineteenth century and is from the Greek word ‘epikentros’ meaning ‘situated on a centre’, from ‘epi’ meaning ‘upon’ and ‘kentron’ meaning ‘centre’.

Interestingly, Oxford Dictionaries gives only The Economist’s definition.

Maybe the grammarians at The Economist should break open a few beers and loosen up a bit on the old epicentre front.

Update, January 2013

… no beer on offer at The Independent. Here’s John Rentoul in the paper’s Errors and Omissions column:

We did it twice last week: used “epicentre” as a fancy way of saying “centre”. The headline on an obituary of Steve Paul on Wednesday described him as “owner of The Scene, the club which became the epicentre of hip 1960s New York”. And in a review of the business year on Thursday, we described the US housing market as “the epicentre of the financial crash that tipped the US into recession”. The epicentre is the point on the Earth’s surface vertically above the focus of an earthquake, not another way of saying “the heart of”.



12 Responses

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  1. I am surprised that The Oxford Dictionary of English should define 1887 as “the mid-nineteenth century”. The word ‘epicentre’ is an Anglicization of ‘epicentrum’ which was coined as a seismmological term in 1879, when it was defined as “The point of first emergence” in Le Conte’s ‘Elementary Geology’. Its extended use in recent years as a synonym for ‘centre’ is as crass as the pompous use of ‘proforma’ instead of ‘form’


    20/06/2010 at 10:50 am

    • Hello, Dai — hope you’re well. Nice to see you again. Thanks for taking the time to share that interesting info.

      But come on now, Dai, get off the fence there — tell me what you really think about about the use of ‘epicentre’ as a synonym for ‘centre’.


      20/06/2010 at 11:02 am

  2. In all of those examples, “centre” would work as well. The journos are just straining for dramatic effect. (Next up: maelstrom.)

    Michael Farrell

    20/06/2010 at 6:54 pm

    • Hi, Michael — yes, you’re absolutely right of course. It’s the old hack in me that finds it forgivable and sometimes irresistible.


      20/06/2010 at 8:36 pm

      • Hi Deborah – I’m afraid as a sub-editor I’m with the pedants on this one. Centre is not the same as epicentre.
        But I would add that although the epicentre is defined as the point immediately ABOVE an earthquake’s underground source, I heard it first used for the point immediately BELOW the atom bomb explosions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki…


        22/06/2010 at 9:38 am

        • Hi, Squirrelbasket — yes, you’d be absolutely right to take it out. I’d see it go with a little pang of regret…(and then try to sneak it into my next story when you were having a teabreak).

          Michael is right to say that it is used for dramatic effect.

          The alternative definition is an interesting point. Now I come to think of it, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the commentaries on footage of Hiroshima and Nagasaki use the word ‘epicentre’ in that way.


          22/06/2010 at 9:56 am

  3. From the Guardian’s corrections column (9 October 2010):

    We seem – with some honourable exceptions – to be reacquiring the habit of misusing “epicentre” when what we mean is simply the centre or focus of something. The Guardian’s style guide entry for epicentre gives the definition as “the point on the Earth’s surface directly above the focus of an earthquake or underground explosion; frequently misused to mean the centre or focus itself, and is also not a synonym for ‘dead centre'”.

    From our recent transgressions, here is a sampling. In a piece where a Dorset village learns that a film is to be shot in its area: “We were to be the epicentre, between Yetminster, Salway Ash and Blackdown” (Tamara Drewe: the view from Dorset, 16 September, page 3, G2). In a collection of great long-ball strikes: “The signature goal of the game was scored by John Fashanu, at the epicentre of a melee in the box” (The joy of six: Route-one goals, 17 September, guardian.co.uk). In an item on the rise of self-styled gourmet food vans in US cities: “LA is the epicentre of the phenomenon” (Takeaways as you’ve never known them, 23 September, page 14, G2).


    12/10/2010 at 4:22 pm

  4. The Guardian is reading you for style pointers! The guilty hand-wringing in the G’s corrections is amusing.

    Michael Farrell

    12/10/2010 at 4:45 pm

    • Hi, Michael — yes, they do go a bit overboard in their self-flagellation sometimes. Interesting, though.


      12/10/2010 at 4:50 pm

  5. More hand-wringing from the Guardian about ‘epicentre’:

    A serial offender reappeared when we wrote that “the epicentre of the latest tremor was 14.3km (8.9 miles) below Coniston”. It is the focus, or centre, of an earthquake that is underground; as the Guardian’s style book says, epicentre means “the point on the Earth’s surface directly above the focus of an earthquake or underground explosion” (A very British quake: Cumbria’s 30 seconds of gentle wobble, 23 December, page 11).


    05/01/2011 at 5:09 pm

  6. Think of “epidermis” or “epidemic”: “epi-” means “upon.”

    How big was the tremor?

    Here’s a link to SoCal’s daily quakes–several every hour, all year long, some larger than others: http://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/recenteqsus/Maps/special/California_Nevada.php

    Michael Farrell

    06/01/2011 at 6:55 am

    • Thanks, Michael — they’re very good tips. It’s safe to say that the tremor wasn’t big at all. ‘Gentle wobble’ just about sums it up. This is Blighty, after all: everything in moderation. Thanks very much for the link.


      06/01/2011 at 7:29 am

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