Sea Change

Plus ça change?

Dear Word Detective:  What is the correct spelling and derivation of “sea change” or “C  change” (perhaps meaning an important or major change in some circumstance)? — Sean.

It’s a truism of anthropology that human beings are pattern-seeking creatures, and we tend to notice when things happen after (and perhaps because) other things happen.  This is as true of this column as it is of chicken farming or pole vaulting.  So when we decide to have a presidential election, I can expect to receive lots of questions about such words as “stump,” “caucus,” “soapbox,” “poll,” “ballot,” “narcolepsy” and “emigration.”  This means that I get to repeat myself in print at least a few times every four years, although I do my best to spice up the answers with fresh cat stories.

What’s a bit odd, although also absolutely predictable, is that whenever the winner of the election is not of the party to which the previous president belonged (still with me?), I am deluged with inquiries about the phrase “sea change” (which is indeed the correct spelling).  It’s almost as if the news media and their Pavlovian pundits were programmed to spit out this particular phrase whenever the White House gets new drapes, thereby confusing their listeners, who then write to me.  I’m not complaining, of course.  I just wish there were a way to float derivatives based on this certainty.

When pundits use the phrase “sea change” today, they usually mean “a profound change in the situation or the way things are done” (“Borosage said President-elect Obama’s victory spearheaded not only a change election, but a sea change election, marking the end of a conservative era,” Marketwatch, 11/07/08).

Like many of our most colorful phrases, “sea change” was coined by William Shakespeare, in this case in his play “The Tempest,” in Ariel’s song to Ferdinand:  “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’s “sea change” was more than a change in the appearance or functioning of the thing changed; it was a radical change in the very nature and composition of the thing itself (“Of his bones are coral made”), the kind of fundamental change that would result from long submersion in the sea.

As a metaphor for radical change, “sea change” had legs, as they say, although it certainly took a while to get going. The first use of the term in print found (so far) after Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” in 1610 didn’t come until Ezra Pound’s poem “Lustra” in 1917.  Subsequent usage of the phrase tended to restrict it to situations where a truly momentous change had taken place (“The Messianic vision … has undergone some strange sea-changes outside Judaism,” 1976).

Unfortunately, as “sea change” has gained more popularity lately, its meaning has often been diluted and trivialized (“Gavin believes that this update indicates a sea change for the software and web applications…,”  In the ultimate insult to the Bard, “sea change” has been harnessed as bizspeak (“Business is in the midst of a sea change when it comes to staffing and retaining superior talent,” New York Times), and I’m sure that somewhere out there right now a trucking company is promising a “sea change in package delivery.”  Full fathom five them all, I say.

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