Q From Ryan Bass: What do you know about the origin of the term ground zero?
A It was used first about the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan at the end of World War II; at least, its first appearance — about a year after the events — is in this connection:
There is reason to believe that, if the effects of blast and fire had been entirely absent from the bombing, the number of deaths among people within a radius of one-half mile from ground zero (the point on the ground directly under the bomb’s explosion in the air) would have been almost as great as the actual figures.
Syracuse Herald Journal, 1 July 1946.
As this is a quotation from the official survey of the results of the bombing at Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the term almost certainly originated in military jargon, though I can’t find an earlier example.
More recently, the term has taken on various other associations: it became a jargon term for the focus of any momentous or damaging event, such as the epicentre of an earthquake or the place at which a tornado touches down.
Especially in the past decade, it has been frequently been confused or conflated with back to square one:
“It just so happened we raised the exact amount of money to meet the purchase price,” O’Toole says. “Now we’re back to ground zero, and we have to start over again.”
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 14 Dec. 2008.
It has also been used in a figurative sense for the focal point of some event or situation, the starting point of some endeavour or the kernel of a developing situation:
Darting through six decades, capturing his passions on film, Avedon has had a knack for locating himself at ground zero of American culture.
Newsweek, Sep. 1993.
Instead of making cuts based on the current school year’s budget, Sina said, the system will start from “ground zero” and build based on what each school needs.
Washington Post, 21 Jan. 2010.
The devastating effects of the attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001 reminded people of the aftermath of a nuclear attack. The term was applied to the site within hours, to the extent that it looked for a while as though it would displace the older meanings entirely. However, the site of an air crash in New York in early November 2001 was also described in some newspapers reports as ground zero, which suggested the term was going to continue with its previous sense of the centre or focus of massive destruction, as has subsequently proved to be the case. As a capitalised term, however, it continues to be attached to the World Trade Center disaster:
Lukach, who serves in the New York Police Department’s elite Emergency Services Unit, said he’s more optimistic about finding survivors in Haiti than he was at Ground Zero.
Sunday Gazette-Mail (Charleston, West Virginia), 17 Jan. 2010.