My understanding is an epicenter is a position above the center of something, and that the term comes from seismology. Since the actual point at which an earthquake occurs is underground, when people refer to an earthquake being in San Bernardino, they actually mean the earthquake happened deep underground and the nearest point on the surface of the earth, the epicenter, is located in San Bernardino.

Recently, new reports from respected sources have called Wuhan, or Lombardi, or New York City, as the epicenters of the coronavirus outbreak. And Merriam & Webster gives "center" as the second meaning of epicenter.

When did the meaning of epicenter (from Greek for upon the center) expand to just mean the center of something important or substantial?

  • Any explanation for the downvote? According to the Help Center guidelines I've asked a practical, answerable question (when did the meaning expand), the question is reasonably scoped (a discussion of one aspect of the definition of one word), and it inspires asnwers that explain why and how (any thoughtful discussion of when the definition expanded will address why/how it expanded). – Josh Apr 9 at 13:51
  • It's a metaphoric usage that gained currency over time, just like the word crowning can be used to describe achievements other than the coronation of a monarch. – Robusto Apr 9 at 13:53
  • Even in the current casual, metaphorical use epicentre normally doesn't 'just mean the center of something important or substantial'. The word is typically used for a place from which something, such as a disease, spreads, just like seismic waves propagate from the epicentre. It is true, though, that many people are not familiar with the distinction between the epicentre and the hypocentre, and that the idea of the epicentre being upon something else is thus lost in the everyday use of the word, both literal and metaphorical. – jsw29 Apr 9 at 15:05

The OED’s earliest citation for this sense of the word is 1908:

Yesterday, as it were, the epicentre of the world's sea-power lay on the waters of north-western Europe.
— Japan Weekly Mail

This is very early, considering the OED’s earliest citation for the word overall is 1880. (And its synonym epicentrum, is listed as dating back to only 1874.)

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  • Is this truly an expansion from the original meaning? Submarines were not in widespread use in 1908, but they did exist. And to be overly technical, a good portion of a conventional boat is below the waterline. – Josh Apr 9 at 13:57
  • @Josh Do you use 'thing' to mean a 'public assembly'? 'Companion' to mean 'someone who eats bread with you'? 'Pointer controlling device' for 'mouse'? Semantic change occurs. When a word's sense is undergoing shift or broadening, there will always be die-hards championing the inviolability of an existing usage. But they arbitrarily draw a line over where such changes became acceptable. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 9 at 14:24
  • @EdwinAshworth, what is your point? In my OP I quote a dictionary as saying the meaning has expanded. My question is when and (if we can know) how did this expansion occur. – Josh Apr 9 at 14:29
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    @Josh Your initial title question, 'Can an infection or pandemic really have an epicenter?', shows a bias against the acceptedness of the broadened usage. (Not my downvote, by the way, but I did adjust the title to match your on-topic body question.) Colin Fine's comment is a balanced consideration of the acceptedness of the word in this sense. Michael Harvey has deleted his very anti-accepted-stance answer. // I myself would avoid 'epicentre' here as being over-dramaticising, but don't consider it 'wrong'. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 9 at 14:42
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    @EdwinAshworth, I'll grant you the title was provocative, and your edit is an improvement. Thanks. – Josh Apr 9 at 14:43

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