A tip of the hat to Per Söderström, quality editor, of Svensa Dagbladet, a highly-respected Swedish daily, for pointing out in his “Quality Column” on Apr. 9, 2017, the flourishing use of “epicenter” (“epicentrum” in Swedish) for everything except its prime meaning: the area of the earth’s surface directly above the place of origin, or focus, of an earthquake. That’s the first definition in my Webster’s New World Dictionary, and it’s similar to that in the dictionary of the Swedish language, published by the Swedish Academy. (Those folks select the Nobel Prize in Literature winners, most of whom are unknown by the vast public, which made last year’s section of Bob Dylan a rare exception. But I digress.)
Söderström, who found 31 usages of “epicentrum” in his own paper in the past year, says that Sweden’s official language watchdogs (there is such a council) recommends using other words, such as center or nucleus, unless writing about an earthquake. However, my Webster’s has a second definition which provides an excuse for American journalists to use epicenter as widely as possible: “A focal point.” And, man, epicenter is indeed popular journalese. A check of the Boston Globe archives turns up 112 usages since Jan. 1, 2016. You can bet on the usages to continue unabated.
By the way, as you see, I followed a rule of journalese that requires anyone quoting from a foreign newspaper to identify it as “highly-respected.”
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