The rate of words turning into a different meaning is accelerating.
“Literally” has come to mean “figuratively,” its opposite. “Figuratively” is disappearing. A television pundit recently said, “We literally need to solve this problem yesterday.” Well, no, not unless you have a time machine.
The Center Will Not Hold
“Epicenter” has lately roared into misuse. An epicenter is the place where an earthquake originates, the point from which tremors radiate. Media have glommed on to “epicenter” as a metaphor for the way COVID-19 spreads.
Now, people are using “epicenter” in place of “center” in all kinds of contexts. Consider this from National Public Radio:
“… the closer one lives to the epicenter of a major metropolitan area, the greater the chances [sic] that person votes for Democrats.”
A secondary definition for epicenter is the focal point for activity, but it seems like the current countless references to “epicenter” are incorrectly trying to evoke the metaphor. In the NPR story, nothing is radiating out of a point in the city. The better word choice is “center.”
Don’t substitute epicenter for “center” unless you intend to be metaphorical about something radiating out from a central point. Or you’re talking about earthquakes.
This Isn’t Normal
While we’re at it, let’s look at reporting about when we can return to the status quo that existed before the current pandemic, a state that should be called “normality.” “Normalcy” is the mathematical condition of being at right angles, but “normalcy” has all but driven out “normality.”
In 1920, presidential candidate Warren G. Harding adopted “return to normalcy” as his campaign slogan, defined as a return to life as it was before World War I and the influenza pandemic of 1918. History has ridiculed his oratorical incompetence ever since.
Notwithstanding that gaffe, Harding won the election, and “normalcy” became part of the American vernacular.
Words at Risk
We have separate words for distinct concepts so we can communicate better. Now, “normality,” “center” and “figuratively” are in danger of disappearing.
Please reinvigorate them through proper usage.
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