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Only Visionaries Can Spot a Sea Change


Our resident jargon maven, Tony Proscio, dropped by the other day to leave his comments on two words recently submitted to our Jargon Finder: visionary and sea change.

Visionary

“Visionary” used to be one of those exceptional, superlative terms reserved for extraordinary people capable of remarkable things. But such words tend to fall, sooner or later, into a kind of inflationary spiral — think of “brilliant,” “unique,” “amazing,” and “genius” — after which they end up being applied to practically everyone who is capable of sitting up and taking solid food. In its pre-inflationary use, “visionary” described people who see things that others do not see: distant horizons, undiscovered worlds, future ages, secret laws of the universe. (In some uses of the word, dating back at least to Jonathan Swift, the “visions” of visionary people weren’t always considered so inspiring. The Oxford English Dictionary includes among its definitions of the term “given to fanciful and unpractical views,” and cites several 18th and 19th century uses with that meaning. Lately, though, the term is most often meant to be flattering.)

How many people, would you say, can really see visions unavailable to most mortals? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I’m pretty sure the number isn’t as high as 27,000. That’s how many times a Communications Network member found the word used on LinkedIn. Some of
those uses apparently entailed people applying the word to themselves. That kind of goofy immodesty makes me suspect that these folks’ “visions” don’t include seeing what’s in the mirror.

It’s too bad, really. Every once in a while, you really do run across someone who seems able to peer deep into the misty realms beyond the imaginations of most of us regular people. There used to be a fine word to describe such a rare being. There isn’t any more.

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.”

Thanks, Tony, and if any of you have words that need exposing, please email us.

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