Why are moments called watershed?

On Thursday, New York Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand commented on the ongoing allegations of sexual harassment against prominent men in politics and entertainment, notably including Matt Lauer and Garrison Keillor just this week:

I think we are in a watershed moment where it’s going to be an important change for our women, for our daughters, for men and for society about what we deem is acceptable. And in the world we live in today, we won’t tolerate abuse of power and position in any form from anyone.

Across chambers, and across the aisle, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan echoed Gillibrand’s sentiments and language to National Public Radio: “We are having a watershed moment in this country. I think this is a defining moment in this country. And I think it needs to be a defining moment in this country.”

We so often describe “defining moments” of “important change” as “watershed moments.” But what it so pivotal about a watershed?

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Which way will the water go? (Pixabay)

‘Shedding’ watershed

Today’s etymological lesson begins with some geology. A watershed is an “area or ridge of land that separates waters flowing to different rivers, basins, or seas,” as the New Oxford American Dictionary defines its. 

In American English, we often talk about living in a particular watershed, e.g., Delaware River watershed, and we might understand this as a region of land where all the water drains down into a common point, with the boundary marker—the actual watershed—being those high points separating water from flowing down into one basin versus another.

Because watersheds direct various water sources into a common basin, it’s tempting to parse a watershed as a shed holding water. Well, at least you’d get the water part right.

The shed in water shed is actually related to the the shed in a “dog shedding fur” or “a minimalist shedding belongings.” Mostly lost is the noun form shed, which long ago meant a “distinction” and referred especially to the part in the hair. They both come from the Old English sceadan, originally meaning “to divide” or “split” and ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European *skei-, “to cut.”

*Skei- appears in lots of other familiar words, like the Latin-based science (knowledge as distinguishing), the Old Norse-based ski (snowshoes originally being cut from wood), and the good, old Anglo-Saxon shit—which has nothing to do with that apocryphal yarn of Ship High In Transit, but all about separating turds from our butts.

That ancient *skei- also shows up in the German sheiden, “to divide.” Many etymologists suspect that the English watershed is a calque (borrowing a foreign word and then translating into its native equivalent) of a German compound featuring that verb: Wasserscheide.

Wasserscheide is literally a “water border” or “water divide,” but be aware: Scheide also means “vagina” in German. It can mean “sheath,” too, just as the Latin source of our word vagina originally meant “sheath” or “scabbard.” (Because metaphor. Because men.)

There’s evidence for Wasserscheide in the 14th century. As for English, the late 15th-century Scots word shed could refer to a “portion of land.” A somewhat ambiguous shed for a “ridge of high ground dividing two valleys” surfaces in the 1530s.

Whatever the word’s particular development in English, watershed is first attested in its geological sense in English in 1764, according to the OED. Its metaphorical extension emerges no later than 1854—and it’s based on the idea that some event changes the course of history, culture, a person’s life, just as a watershed changes the course of where water flows.    

Here, the OED cites the theological journal, the Princeton Review: “In our position, on the true watershed of nations and of history, we may in truth exclaim, India is west of us; and thitherward the course of history is pointing.” That is, for Christian and commercial expansion, that is, a la Manifest Destiny. (Because White men. Because capitalists.)

A watershed moment for watershed moment

Watershed as an attributive noun—acting more like a modifier—begins popping up in the early 20th century. Again, from the OED, which finds watershed moment in a 1920 issue of US religious periodical, Congregationalist & Advance: “Failure on the part of either executive or Senate to realize that it is a ‘watershed moment’ in history.” I couldn’t track down what the author was urging government to acknowledge, but the sentiment remains timely.

Some time on the Google Ngram Viewer, which charts frequencies of words in lots of books, shows some interesting patterns, too:

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Watershed event has occurred more often than watershed year, which is significantly ahead of watershed moment.

But I think we’re at a watershed moment for watershed moment, as the News on the Web Corpus—which spans lots of online text from 2010 to, well, yesterday—has watershed moment taking a big lead. Here are the top five:

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In the number 2 and 5 spots are watershed management and watershed areas, which refer to geological watershed.

In broadcasting in some countries, a watershed more specifically refers to the time in the evening after which programs are considered inappropriate for children. The OED first finds this usage in the BBC’s 1962 Handbook: “The BBC’s…new 9.30 p.m. watershed policy, its intention to distinguish those programmes which it thinks unsuitable…for children.”

As we see with NBC quickly firing Matt Lauer and Minnesota Public Radio summarily dismissing all things Garrison Keillor, it seems broadcasters’ new watershed policies are taking seriously this watershed moment in sex, gender, and power in our culture.

m ∫ r ∫

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