At the Wording Desk

Increase your English vocabulary with -shed words like watershed, foodshed, walkshed and megashed.

Certainly you know what a watershed is. But what is a walkshed, a laborshed, a megashed, a foodshed, a viewshed? Yes, -shed has become a fashionable suffix or second word in about a dozen newish compound nouns, all patterned after the word watershed.

Etymology of the Verb 'to Shed '
Shed itself begins as an elemental Teutonic verb form with its Old English reflex sceadan ‘to divide, to separate.’ Persistent wee root that it is, the original meaning is still in use in some English dialects, when farmers begin to shed the cows from the goats ‘to separate domestic flocks into their proper assemblies.’ To shed is cognate with modern Dutch and German scheiden ‘to divide, to separate.’ One interesting cognate of to shed is to shit and its Germanic partner Scheisse. Shit was originally *gescheit and *gescheissene ‘that which is divided or separated’ from the body. English shed is distantly related to the Proto-Indo-European roots *skheid- and *skid- which appear in the ancient Greek verb schizein ‘to split, to separate’ (think of schizophrenia’s original meaning of ‘split mind’) and the Latin verb scindere ‘to cleave, to cut’ with its modern English derivatives scissors and rescind.


Watershed became popular in English only around 1800 CE. But a German word Wasserscheide was four hundred years old that year. Wasserscheife first appears in German print about 1400 CE and therefore the English compound watershed is very likely a calque, a loan-translation, from the German word which, from its coining, has referred to the drainage basin, the catchment ground from which the waters of a stream or river flow to the body of the stream.

With the word watershed in mind, urban planner Alan Durning of the Sightline Institute coined the term walkshed to describe the variety of amenities within a one-mile radius of a town or city point. This calibration of walkability is now being studied in a number of American urban sites like Philadelphia and New York City. Walkshed has acquired a secondary related meaning. It is the distance and urban area that a person can comfortably or conveniently cover on foot.

But Durning may have borrowed the term walkshed. It does occur in The Daily Score of April 5, 2006, in “One Mile from Home,” an article by Alan Durning: “A one-mile perimeter, therefore, defines this car-less family's pedestrian travel zone — call it our ‘walkshed.’ Fortunately, because we chose to live in a compact community, our walkshed turns out to be well stocked.” But there are earlier printed uses of walkshed. Note that Durning does not specifically claim that he coined the word.
Here are earlier citations:
2005 Mississippi Renewal Forum (Mississippi) (Nov. 9) “The Mississippi Gulf Region: A Framework for Renewal” p. 6: A key piece of regional and community livability is walkable access to parks and schoolyards. The walksheds shown here illustrate varying levels of access across the region and within communities Gulfport is shown using actual walking routes while other municipalities are shown with straight-line radius walksheds.

2005 El Dorado County Transportation Commission Folsom El Dorado Corridor Transit Strategy Final Report (Placerville, California) (Dec. 9) “Section 5” p. V-1: Typically, the “walkshed” for transit is about one-quarter mile and, in some cases, as much as one-half mile if sufficient infrastructure is in place to accommodate pedestrians (i.e. sidewalks, safety design and lighting; and land uses that activate the walking environment)."

Laborshed is the distance within which live the workers in a factory, a neighbourhood or a city. Its first appearance in print is May 5, 2008 on a Davenport, Iowa website in article written by Jenifer DeWitt: “The first-ever Quad-Cities Graduate Inventory determined that 47,700 graduates are being produced annually within a 90-mile radius, which is considered the laborshed area for the Quad-Cities.”

Foodshed is the area of land needed to provide food for a given location or population. It is an older term that either walkshed or laborshed.
1929 W.P. Hedden How Great Cities Are Fed @ Journal of Business of the University of Chicago (Apr. 2, 1930) Joseph G. Knapp vol. 3, no. 2, p. 263: Watersheds, Milksheds, and Foodsheds.

Viewshed is the landscape or topography visible from a given geographic point, especially one having aesthetic value.

1970 Oakland Tribune (California) (July 7) “Less Spoiling Route OK’d for Briones Lines” (in Martinez) p. 4E: The new route through the park will take the line out of sight about 90 per cent of the park visitors, and cut “viewshed” intrusion to 25 per cent.”

This is a large, ugly distribution warehouse or big-box store designed to destroy, for example, Mom & Pop hardware stores located within the death-shed of the big-box. Environmental protesters are using this term to decry the wiping out of small neighbourhood shops and their replacement by soulless mega-splorps.
Early Citation:
“First there were the friendly neighbourhood ironmongers. Then came the out-of- town superstore. Now, courtesy of Kingfisher, comes the next generation of DIY outlet, the mega-shed. Called Depot (and appropriately given the American pronunciation Dee Poe), at 70,000 sq ft these are twice the size of typical B&Q stores and stock double the number of lines.”
—"View from City Road: Plenty of mileage at Kingfisher," The Independent (London), September 16, 1992

A Few Other Shed Terms & Phrases
Woodshedding is a playful term among some jazz musicians for practicing and playing in isolated places, like a country woodshed, where you will not disturb neighbours or passersby. The word appeared in the New York Times in October, 2006. Another origin claims that woodshedding “originated from drum practice due to the fact that drum sticks, after hours of playing, start to flake off small bits of wood (usually covering the floor around the drumset). This is referred to as “woodshedding.” Although it originated as a drumming term, it is commonly used for any instrument. A shortened form of the word is shedding.”

 Shed Saying
“He’s not the sharpest tool in the shed” implies that he is stupid.

A shed-dragger is a motoring yoyo who pulls a trailer behind his car that is four times longer than his car.

“Burning down the shed” is low slang for very vigorous sex.

 Warning: Extreme Vulgarity
“Bread in the shed” is vulgar, sexist street slang for a severe yeast infection. Feminists loathe this term for another sound reason. It is funny. So is the next phrase. “Tuna shed” is a current L.A. vulgar synonym for twat.

A sheddy is current American public school and high school slang for a student taking “shop” or “industrial arts.” Students in academic classes think of building skills classes as fit only for illiterate fools. Shed builder is another cafeteria putdown of tech. students.

But now must we shed all pretense of momentum and, possibly, good taste. The door of this shed is closed.


Alain Manesson Mallet (1630?-1706?). “Svcrerie.” Mallet was a French geographer, engineer and mathematician in the service of Louis XIV. This engraving of sugar production in the French West Indies is from his multi-volume Description de l'Univers (Paris, 1683).
Image courtesy of the Historical Museum of Southern Florida.

Bill Casselman, June 05, 2017

Text Copyright 2017 by William Gordon Casselman


Bill Casselman