I recently read about different cultural changes and how they're named. Let's simply say stone age, bronze age or space age or internet age. In all of these "ages", there's something (a discovery or an invention or an idea) that just, kind of, "sticks out".

What's the word for this thing? (And if so, what might it be today that the civilizations after us call our time?)

  • +1 - I wish I knew the answer! // History.SE might have some insights too. – Mark D Worthen PsyD Jul 19 '17 at 16:11
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    I think you have pretty much answered your own question: X-age. Perhaps you're thinking of 'epoch-making', but you wouldn't use it in a compound noun like 'age'. For example, we are in what might become known as the 'internet-age'. – Ian Jul 19 '17 at 16:11
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    Driving wheel when used figuratively. As in, “Spirit of Entrepreneurship – Driving Wheel of the Present-Day Society" found online. – NVZ Jul 19 '17 at 16:13
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    The current "era" is often called "the space age" (that was actually an answer to a Guardian cryptic crossword a couple of days ago). But even the recent realisation that the universe is absolutely teeming with potentially habitable planets has had minimal in influence on most people's daily lives, by comparison with, say, mobile phones and the Internet. And in a few years time, most likely artificial intelligence will rapidly become far more significant than anything that's come before.. – FumbleFingers Jul 19 '17 at 16:14
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    The defining characteristic of the age? – BoldBen Jul 19 '17 at 21:48

Both 'epoch-making' and 'epochal' constitute proper usage

The synonyms, epoch-making and epochal, are equally acceptable. Deciding when to use one word over the other will depend on the context. For example, if one wants to emphasize a development that defines an era, then epoch-making will probably convey that meaning more readily to a general audience than epochal, due to the two-part, hyphenated word construction.

Thus, if an individual reads:

  • "Routine production of stone tools was an epoch-making advancement for hominins."

She might think to herself:

  • "Ah, regular production of stone tools made the paleolithic epoch."

Both words, epoch-making and epochal, came into use during the mid-1800s.1 The OED notes that epoch-making was "orig. said chiefly of scientific discoveries or treatises; now extended to designate any remarkable or sensational event, publication, etc."2

I provide details below on the lesser-known word, epochal.

Detailed information regarding 'epochal'

Oxford English Dictionary

epochal, adj.

  1. Of the nature of an epoch; forming an epoch; epoch-making.3

Frequency (in current use): Frequency Band 4

Etymology (epoch): < late Latin epocha, < Greek ἐποχή stoppage, station, position (of a planet), fixed point of time, < ἐπέχειν to arrest, stop, take up a position, < ἐπί + ἔχειν to hold. Compare French époque, Italian epoca.

Examples of earliest use

1857 M. Pattison in Westm. Rev. Oct. 389 The..epochal crises of affairs.

1866 W. R. Alger Solitudes Nature & Man ii. 80 [David Hume's] place in the history of philosophy is of epochal importance.

1877 J. W. Dawson Origin of World vi. 127 Warring..has suggested that the Mosaic days are epochal days.

Oxford Dictionaries - English

epochal | ADJECTIVE

Forming or characterizing an epoch; epoch-making.4

‘the epochal scale of change in the East’

‘the beginning of Jesus's human life is an epochal event’

‘The current information revolution can be termed as the fifth epochal event since the birth of the human species.’


epochal - 1. highly significant or important; especially bringing about or marking the beginning of a new development or era; "epochal decisions made by Roosevelt and Churchill"; "an epoch-making discovery"

  1. significant, important - important in effect or meaning; "a significant change in tax laws"; "a significant change in the Constitution"; "a significant contribution"; "significant details"; "statistically significant5


  1. OED Online (n.d.). Oxford University Press. Retrieved July 19, 2017, from http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/63646

    • The above entry has not been updated for the OED 3rd ed., therefore it is drawn from the OED 2nd ed. (1989). The reference for the 2nd edition is:

    • Simpson, J. A., Weiner, E. S. C., & Oxford University Press. (1989). The Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

  2. Id.

  3. Id.

  4. Oxford Dictionaries - English (n.d.). Retrieved July 19, 2017, from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/epochal.

  5. epochal. (n.d.) WordNet 3.0, Farlex clipart collection. (2003-2008). Retrieved July 19 2017 from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/epochal

HT: @Ian for helping me remember the word. :0)

  • Please excuse my upvote and subsequent un-upvote. The original question is 'What's a word for the "one big thing" that drives society for a time?' rather than the name for the period of time. – marcellothearcane Jul 19 '17 at 16:54
  • @marcellothearcane well epochal doesn't describe a period of time. It describes a singular event that brings about a new era. – wrymug Jul 19 '17 at 17:02
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    +1 for epochal. The advent of stone tools can see the noun 'stone' as the artifact that is 'epochal' to describe what propelled the 'stone age' – psosuna Jul 20 '17 at 0:14

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