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Sea change

Q From Dave Donnelly in Hawaii: The phrase sea change appears frequently in both books and newspapers, and the only definition I’ve been able to find for it is that it is a transformation. How did the phrase come about and why?

A The phrase is a quotation from Shakespeare. It comes from Ariel’s wonderfully evocative song in The Tempest:

Full fathom five thy father lies:
Of his bones are coral made:
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

Shakespeare obviously meant that the transformation of the body of Ferdinand’s father was made by the sea, but we have come to refer to a sea change as being a profound transformation caused by any agency. So pundits and commentators who think it has something to do with the ebb and flow of the tide, and use it for a minor or recurrent shift in policy or opinion, are doing a grave injustice to one of the most evocative phrases in the language. I wish a figurative full fathom five to such people.

The point at which it stopped being a direct quotation and turned into an idiom is hard to pin down, though it seems to have happened only in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The Oxford English Dictionary finds the first allusive use in one of Ezra Pound’s poems from 1917. But examples can be found a little earlier than that, as in The Great White Wall by Julian Hawthorne, dated 1877: “Three centuries ago, according to my porter, a sea-change happened here which really deserves to be called strange”.

And it’s odd that it seems to be a rare example of a hyphenated phrase that’s losing its hyphen: all the modern dictionaries I’ve consulted have it as two words with not a hyphen in sight.

Page created 25 Mar. 2000

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Last modified: 25 March 2000.