Watershed Moment – Meaning, Origin and Usage

Are you looking for a way to describe a point in time that changed everything? You could say that it was a “watershed moment”. This post digs into the history and meaning of this phrase, and shows you how to use it.

​​​Meaning

The expression “watershed moment” refers to an event that altered the course of history. Such moments can pertain to world history, but they can also unfold on a much smaller scale, including in a single organization.

Watershed moments are so significant that people begin talking about the time “before” and “after” the event.

​​​Example Usage

Are you not sure how you might use the phrase “watershed moment” in a sentence? These examples should help you figure it out:

  • “Everyone knows that 9/11 was a watershed moment. Everything changed, forever, the moment those planes hit the Twin Towers.”
  • “The Covid-19 pandemic proved to be a watershed moment for mental health.”
  • “We don’t think about it often, now, but the dissolution of the Roman Empire was a watershed moment in history.”

​​​Origin

The noun “watershed” likely originates with the German “Wasser-scheide“. It refers to a line that marks the waters flowing into two distinct rivers, with “shed” meaning a high ground between two valleys.

A watershed represents, as such, a clear division — a point at which one thing end and another begins.

The word “watershed” has been in use in the English language since the early nineteenth century. The phrase “watershed moment” emerged soon after.

The metaphor is clear. Just as a watershed defines the division between two separate bodies of water, a watershed moment defines the division of history into a “before” and an “after” in relation to a significant event.

The phrase “watershed moment” can be used to describe any important event, decision, or invention, but it is often used to describe a declaration of war or another politically critical occurrence.

Watershed moments can also be personal, however — someone might define the day they found out that they lost a job, or got accepted into college, as a watershed moment in their life.

​Phrases Similar to Watershed Moment

Instead of calling an event or decision a watershed moment, you could also use the following phrases:

  • Turning point — an important point that altered the course of history.
  • Crossroads — a point that forces an important decision to be made.
  • To cross the Rubicon — referring to Caesar’s crossing of the river Rubicon, an act that led to a civil war, this saying means “to reach a point of no return”. Instead of describing something as a watershed moment, you could say the Rubicon was crossed.

​Phrases Opposite to Watershed Moment

The opposite of a watershed moment would be an event so insignificant that nobody will remember it. Watershed moments usually denote proactive events, however, and antonyms could include:

  • A standstill — a situation that stops progress in negotiations.
  • An impasse.
  • A stalemate — referring to a chess move that renders a game unwinneable.

​​What Is the Correct Saying?

The correct saying is a “watershed moment”. It means a moment that alters the course of history.

​​​Ways People May Say Watershed Moment Incorrectly

The significance of an event may not be known until much later. Some events, like the September 11 attacks, can immediately be said to be watershed moments. Others only prove to be important later on.

To avoid hyperbole, you would be advised to avoid calling something a watershed moment unless you are certain about its significance.

​​​Acceptable Ways to Phrase Watershed Moment

You can use the expression “watershed moment” to talk about historical events that were critical turning points. You can also choose to call important local events, or moments that led you to change your life completely, as watershed moments.

It is usually best to save the phrase “watershed moment” for events that have already unfolded and that have had a clear aftermath, allowing you to make more accurate judgments about their importance.

 

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