Brandon Letsinger

Where does the word Watershed come from?

In this article we explore where the term watershed originally comes from and why there is such a difference between North America and Europe.

The Etymology of a “Watershed”

Waterways and ecosystems have long played a prominent role in indigenous knowledge, as well as for all life on earth and the development of human cultures; as pathways for transportation, trade, exploration and often as boundaries, and it is easy to forget that our understanding and relationship to watersheds was very different than our own today until very recently.

As an English word in the context of a geographic and scientific term, Merriam Webster puts the first use of Watershed to 1803, while other sources say 1808. Even then, it took it a few years to find it’s scholarly footing, Early translations in Britain such as that by John Hershel in Encyclopædia Britannica, writing on Physical Geography, used the form ‘Water-sched’, treating it as a direct translation from the new German root word “Wasser-scheide” (meaning specifically water-divorce). Both the German word, and this translation take the term literally as a high point, or ridge, with from which water sheds to either side.

In Britain and Europe, watershed predominately refers to the ridge, or high point from which water flows to a river.

While this particular spelling was short lived, it soon became our modern form – ‘Watershed’ – and shifted from being treated like an adopted translation to a verb meaning “to shed”, As it became adopted into English, it used both the root word in Anglo-Saxon (scheadan) as from the German (scheide), and the same root as the verb “to shade”. This form of watershed meant “a mountain range which sends waters to different river areas or seas“, and is still the predominant meaning for the term in Europe and England, which is used often to discuss water flowing from a high place. This gives us the modern definition of Watershed in the United Kingdom as:

A watershed is high ground from which water flows down to a river”

Cambridge Dictionary, 2019
In North America, watersheds predominately refer to the place in between the ridges or high points. From where a drop of water lands to how far it flows to an ocean or final body of water.

No one is really sure why, perhaps a mistranslation, but from it’s first use in North America, “Watershed” really was used more like “Water-shed”. It didn’t enter common usage until the 1870’s as the first real hydrology surveys were being completed and it refers not to a high point from which water shed, but instead “the slopes down which the waters run”. From this, the drainage basins that this term forms becomes a noun, and is the same use that we in North America learn in schools today. Taken together it means:

A watershed is an area of land that drains all the streams and rainfall to a common outlet such as the outflow of a reservoir, mouth of a bay, or any point along a stream channel.

A Watershed Conclusion

The meaning of which flows into our last and final definition – “watershed moment”.

A watershed moment, or point, or year – is that divide, that moment when a drop of rain becomes set on its path as applied to human culture and events. Because watershed is used much more actively as a verb in Europe, and often as a noun in North America, one is much more likely to hear watershed used figuratively, such as the sentence from the Daily Telegraph in June 1999: “The Balkans conflict is at a watershed between a diplomatic settlement and the prospect of a ground war”. This use only make sense if you are using the term as a dividing point. Ultimately, it means

“the exact moment that changes the direction of activity or situation… from which things will never be the same”.

Grammarist – Watershed Moment


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