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Chris -- 2011-03-08

#1 2011-07-22 15:05:04

kem
Eggcornista
From: Victoria, BC
Registered: 2007-08-28
Posts: 2119

watershed

At a recent conference a British-born biologist pointed out to me a difference in the way Brits and Americans use the word “watershed.” In the UK, a watershed is a border separating waters that flow into different basins – a continental (or less than continental) divide. Cf the German Wasserscheide, which may even be the source of the English “watershed.” In North America, by contrast, a watershed is the basin itself, a region that embraces the collection area for a flow of water.

The most reasonable explanation for the NA alteration of the UK standard would lean on the idea that the land discards (i.e. sheds) its water through the basin. Could, however, the novel North American usage be influenced by the word “shed,” a small house or hut, that derives from an early form of “shade?” That is, have American speakers, by conflating the idea of a structure that embraces a certain plot of land with the “shed” in “watershed,” been encouraged to transfer “watershed” from the line itself to the regions marked out by the line?

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#2 2011-07-22 22:24:39

patschwieterman
Administrator
From: California
Registered: 2005-10-25
Posts: 1665

Re: watershed

Cool! I spent four years in college calculating mean annual watershed discharges, etc., and it never once occurred to me that the “shed” of “to shed water” might be closer to the source of “watershed” than the “shed” of “a small building.” Since I was trained in “integrative” approaches, the latter certainly made sense to me—the air, land, and water in a water basin were all to be treated as a kind of large structure.

I don’t think I’ve ever been consciously aware of the British usage before, though I’m convincing myself I’ve got a vague memory of being puzzled by the ways some writers used the term.

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#3 2011-07-24 18:28:13

burred
Eggcornista
From: Montreal
Registered: 2008-03-17
Posts: 937

Re: watershed

This one caught me completely by surprise. Of course I was familiar with the confusion surrounding the term ‘watershed’; it bobbled my mind a bit to recast it into eggcornical terms, which I recognized with astonishment to be absolutely spot on. And I was just as surprised to learn that Pat had been tasked with calculating watershed areas and discharges at some point before going over to the dark side of letters. I gripped the table when he said he’d been trained in ‘integrative’ approaches.

I went looking for the origin of the confusion within the scientific literature, without much luck. On my shelves, there are warnings about the potential for confusion in glossaries from the 1950s all the way up to recent textbooks on limnology. The terms ‘catchment’, ‘drainage basin’, and ‘drainage divide’ are suggested, to no avail of course. Watershed is thoroughly entrenched, in N.A. and in my mind at least.

In reading the old literature, it is easy to see how the confusion arose. Used in the phrase “the soils within the watershed”, the word can be understood either way, as a circumference or as an area. ‘Watershed’ gives no clue as to what the water is being shed from. I confess that I hold both images in my head, of “an area that sheds water” and “a virtual shed that temporarily stores water” when I think of watershed; I never think of the original “divide”. The ‘water storage shed’ idea is carried forward to the idea of an airshed, which for a particular lake, by analogy to a watershed, would be the sum of the sources of air pollution upwind, that contribute to the pollution load falling on the lake.

The “egghorns” are not to be applied only to North American heads, however. For example, an article from PROCEEDINGS OF THE COTTESWOLD NATURALISTS FIELD CLUB of 1868, entitled The Watershed of the Upper Thames, by one John Bravender, Esq., FGS, uses watershed as I would, to refer to the entire hydrological source area above a given point.

There are two pertinent international treaties. The “Treaty of Washington (1842)” which established the border between Maine and New Brunswick, employs the original sense:

From the point where the Connecticut River cuts the 45th parallel of north latitude to the head of Hull’s Stream, its principal source ; from thence in an indulating line along the watershed between the Kenebec and Penobscot on the south, and the Chaudiere on the north
Treaty of Washington, 1842

One hundred years later, a treaty between the US and Canada about transborder water issues uses the drainage basin sense. So does this Annual Report from New York, in 1897.

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#4 2011-07-25 04:40:28

patschwieterman
Administrator
From: California
Registered: 2005-10-25
Posts: 1665

Re: watershed

burred—Thanks for looking into the history of “watershed.” Your Upper Thames datum from England reminds me of Mark Liberman’s suggestion that acorns and eggcorns are probably often born at around the same time; the acorn just ends up being better documented.

Do you have any guesses about why the eggcornish sense prevailed in N. America while the “divide” sense remains the standard in the UK?

And I was just as surprised to learn that Pat had been tasked with calculating watershed areas and discharges at some point before going over to the dark side of letters.

My undergrad work was in Environmental Science and Agriculture. I think my most fondly remembered course in college was a hydrology class taught by an absolutely brilliant professor.

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#5 2011-08-08 10:50:51

Dixon Wragg
Eggcornista
From: Santa Rosa, California
Registered: 2008-07-04
Posts: 633

Re: watershed

FWIW, while I never cognized very explicitly the deeper meaning of “watershed”, I always assumed on a more or less unconscious level that it referred to higher ground shedding water down into lower areas. Thus I was thinking in terms of the borders of the area known as a watershed rather than the area within those borders, though of course the one implies the other. It never occurred to me that “shed” in this context could refer to a metaphoric shed—a structure or area containing water. I think the issue of whether we think of “watershed” in terms of the borders, the contained area, or both could be thought of as a sort of figure/ground phenomenon. For me, the borders (the high areas which shed the water) have been “in figure” while the circumscribed area has been, conceptually, background.

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#6 2011-08-08 14:15:30

DavidTuggy
Eggcornista
From: Mexico
Registered: 2007-10-12
Posts: 1758
Website

Re: watershed

The “shed” may be nominal (a shed), or verbal, in which case you probably have a Obj + V = Subj compound parallel to windbreak : a watershed is what sheds water much as a windbreak is what breaks the wind (contrast a breakwater in which the order is V + Obj). I fully expect both analyses occur in people’s minds: a hidden-eggcornish kind of development that is very common. E.g. I remember doing a double-take upon reading an analysis of scrubwoman as a N + N compound: I had never thought the word scrub there to be anything but a verb, but don’t doubt that the analyst was reflecting another legitimate way to take ((re)structure) it.


*If the human mind were simple enough for us to understand,
we would be too simple-minded to understand it* .

(Possible Corollary: it is, and we are .)

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#7 2011-08-08 23:33:54

Dixon Wragg
Eggcornista
From: Santa Rosa, California
Registered: 2008-07-04
Posts: 633

Re: watershed

DavidTuggy wrote:

...a watershed is what sheds water much as a windbreak is what breaks the wind…

So then, I’m a windbreak?

Sorry.

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#8 2011-08-09 22:15:33

DavidTuggy
Eggcornista
From: Mexico
Registered: 2007-10-12
Posts: 1758
Website

Re: watershed

No, you’re a windbreaker.
Also sorry.
(I did say “breaks the wind”, not “breaks wind”.)

Last edited by DavidTuggy (2011-08-09 23:10:33)


*If the human mind were simple enough for us to understand,
we would be too simple-minded to understand it* .

(Possible Corollary: it is, and we are .)

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