Monday, November 13, 2006

Safire on Epicenter and Ground Zero

New York Times "On Language" columnist William Safire (who was also the Nixon speech writer who wrote Spiro Agnew's famous phrase "nattering nabobs of negativism") discussed the technical meanings of the casually used terms epicenter and ground zero in Sunday's paper. Even Safire's prone to bandy about these words, as he did last week with epicenter. A reader corrected him:
As the relentless Nitpicker’s League will note, I misused the word epicenter in the preceding sentence. About a month ago, in a column about the expression “skin in the game,” I got carried away with the “epicenter of this epidermic epic.” Sure enough, one Alan Zarky in e-mailville wrote: “I was surprised to see you use epicenter in the sense of ‘very center.’ The epi means ‘upon,’ and the word has a specific meaning in geology, ‘the point on the earth’s surface above the center of an earthquake.’ Shouldn’t we leave the word to its derivationally appropriate meaning?”

I knew I was stretching it (and sneakily began the next paragraph with “below that sense”) because I had been sternly corrected by a thick stratum of geologists years ago for confusing epicenter (“the breakout point on the surface above an earthquake’s underground hypocenter”) with ground zero (“the point on the surface directly below an aboveground nuclear explosion”).
I was surprised that the term ground zero was so specific to above ground nuclear explosions. An editor for the American Heritage dictionary gives Safire the go-ahead to use the terms as he would: "Even though the metaphor may be a misapplication of the scientific understanding of the word, the metaphor effectively evokes the visible focus of radiating power in an earthquake, and seems worth keeping in a writer’s bag of tricks."

[For more krazy Agnew/Safire komedy (Vietnam opponents = "an effete corps of impudent snobs," for example) see David Remnick's July "Talk of the Town" piece in the New Yorker.]


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