Ground zero

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Ground zero originally referred to the point on the ground immediately under an exploding atomic bomb. Because it is at the center of the explosion, ground zero is the point of greatest devastation. This is a bad thing, obviously. Yet in recent years, writers often use the phrase to refer to the center of anything, even if there is nothing negative about being at the center. This usage continued to flourish even after the word became very prominent, with its negative connotations intact, after the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S., and it doesn’t appear to be going away. People seem to find it useful.


Ground zero sometimes retains its negative connotations, especially where it relates to events fresh in people’s memories—for example:

[I]n Ortley Beach, which local officials are calling the hurricane’s ground zero, the damage is so bad that the community has not yet been permitted back. [New York Times]

Nevada has been dubbed ground zero of the economic crisis. [Guardian]

Greenland can look like ground zero for global warming. [Chicago Tribune]

In reference to the site of the 2001 terrorist attacks in Manhattan, the phrase is often treated as a proper noun, and hence capitalized—for example:

Learning of its existence by chance, I tried to discover more from locals at Ground Zero, where the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre stood. [Daily Mail]

It’s clear at this point that toxic air at post-9/11 Ground Zero caused lung problems and other health issues for workers and first responders at the site. [Gothamist]

Elsewhere, ground zero is often used with no sense that being at ground zero is a bad thing—for example:

The president is also talking about the government bailout of the auto industry at every stop in this state, now ground zero in the battle for the presidency. [LA Times]

Wynn and Sally, close to the Ground Zero of everything countercultural in those years, saw the dream go bad from close up. [Independent]

This is turning out to be the ground zero, the economic engine of the rebuild. []