July 1, 2008

Metaphorically speaking

Some words are too heavy-laden to use figuratively.

"Ground Zero," for example, brings with it images of death and destruction. Prior to 2001, we grammarians insisted that it be used only in reference to nuclear explosions. But even we have to make an exception for the site of the former World Trade Center in New York City. That is indeed a site of profound destruction.

Given the phrase's inherent qualities, it is not only absurd, but also insensitive to write of a shopping mall being "ground zero for the region's economic recovery."

People seem to like the word "epicenter." But, as Inigo Montoya said, "I don't think it means what you think it means."

Outside of seismology, there really is no good use for "epicenter." It doesn't mean "middle," and it doesn't describe a center that's better than all the other centers. It's the point of origin of an earthquake.

Yes, I suppose you could get away with using it metaphorically sometimes, e.g., "the subprime shakedown was the epicenter of credit troubles that shook the financial industry to its foundations." But unless you are talking about something destructive—earth-shattering either literally or figuratively—please use something less loaded. A new office building is not "the epicenter of the financial district," no matter how many bankers work there.

I hesitate to even address the use of the word "rape" to describe consumers' feelings about high prices. Suffice it to say that the experiences of people who must reduce their Starbucks budgets to gas up their Hummers differ from those of people who have been sexually battered.

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