Sea Change

A “change wrought by the sea” can be a frightening and unpredictable thing — a wrenching that sets you on a new course, willy-nilly, at the summons of vast, inscrutable forces. Or it can be a mystical transformation, the way the churning of the sea turns a Coke-bottle shard into a jewel-like specimen of polished glass.

Shakespeare had the latter kind of transformation in mind when he placed the phrase in the mouth of the spirit Ariel in Act I of “The Tempest.” In one of the play’s most famous songs, the sprite leads young Prince Ferdinand to believe that his father’s dead body lies “full fathom five” beneath the ocean. No part of the king’s body has faded, Ariel sings, “But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange.”

Whatever kind of change may be wrought by the sea, you’d expect it to be something overpowering, life-altering, mystical, or some combination of the three. And the term, with its high literary origins, would seem right only for the most intentionally poetic uses. Unfortunately, it seems to pop up every time the tide shifts, and to apply to every turn of events whether large or small.

The writer and part-time lexicographer Michael Quinion, on his literary blog “World Wide Words,” passes a judgment on this trend that sums up the case perfectly. “Pundits and commentators who think [“sea-change”] has something to do with the ebb and flow of the tide,” he writes, “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.”

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