‘The fact that 29 pools, leisure centres and gyms have closed in the past year owing to the energy crisis is heartbreaking. Exercise hubs are as fundamental to mental and physical health as GP surgeries’ – letter, The Guardian March 2023

All familiar enough. But I was slightly surprised to find the word ‘hub’ in this context. I’d come across ‘exercise centres’ and ‘exercise clubs’ but a ‘hub’ has quasi-technical connotations that strike me as unfamiliar. Has the phrase come into common use only recently?

‘Hub’ is a well-established English word, though it wasn’t used by Shakespeare, and wasn’t included by Dr Johnson in his great Dictionary of 1755. But it had been in use at least since the mid-seventeenth century. It has always been associated with the central element of a wheel, from which spokes radiate, though even this is probably not its original sense: it was also spelt ‘hob’ and denoted a rounded, projecting block, also identified as a ‘boss’, meaning a swelling in the stem of a plant, or the knob-like raised centre of a shield. By extension ‘boss’ has also been applied to the often elaborately decorated junction of ribs in a vaulted ceiling. 

The shift from a literal sense of ‘hub’ to a figurative one, referring not to a physical object but to a concept or an institution occupying a central or dominant position in a group of connected ideas, is attributed by the Oxford Dictionary to the American writer Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1888), who wrote jokingly in 1858 about the State-House in his home city of Boston, which he described as ‘the hub of the solar system’. That joke itself takes for granted that a ‘hub’ need not be literally the central component of a wheel. The metaphor is clearly well-established by that point.  A little later, in 1876, a newspaper correspondent in India could write: ‘Calcutta swaggers as if it were the hub of the universe’. A ‘hub’ by this time is as much a focus for human activity of many types or entities, physical or conceptual, as for spokes, whether attached to the wheels of bandwagons or bicycles.   

I remain surprised by my own reaction to that phrase ‘exercise hubs’. There is nothing particularly unusual, it seems, about the idea – except that the deceptively simple word ‘hub’ can nowadays imply a colossal social organisation, such as that triumphal ‘transport hub’, Heathrow airport. May I revert, for pure pleasure, to the picture evoked by another citation in the OED, from the Strand Magazine in 1897: ‘The spider … sits unconcerned but watchful in the centre or hub of her snare.’ That nicely introduces the faint air of menace that I feel when contemplating Heathrow.

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