Sunday, January 25, 2009


Cris Telgard in Mesilla NM wrote:

Yesterday, in a post to Keith Burnham's great Leland Report, I used the phrase "watershed event" to refer to the Inauguration of President Obama. I've always used this phrase (more often "watershed moment") to mean an important or crucial time, event, or factor that marks a very significant change. I was asked by another TLR subscriber just what this meant. While I think my meaning is correct in this usage, I can't find anything that explains the origin of this phrase. Can you enlighten me? I look forward to catching your amusing and enlightening radio gig when I return to Leland in May.

There are two uses here, one literal and one figurative. The literal sense was used in English in the early 19th century: “The line separating the waters flowing into different rivers or river basins; a narrow elevated tract of ground between two drainage areas.” [OED] It’s also used to describe an area of land that drains into a common body of water. Watersheds in this sense come in all shapes and sizes. Small watersheds exist within larger watersheds, so it’s watersheds all the way down.

Cris Telgard explained the figurative sense succinctly and accurately. It’s a critical turning point, a moment that potentially will have historic ramifications.

As for the origin of the word watershed, it probably represents a translation of a German word in use since the 14th century: wasserscheide, water parting. Water is clear enough; the word shed goes back to an Old English term translated as distinction, discrimination, and separation. In the 14th century, shed was also the term used to describe a part made in the hair on the crown of the head by a comb.

SIDEBAR: Watershed Center, Grand Traverse Bay

SIDEBAR: The Watershed Game

Now available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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