THE phrase sea change, meaning a fundamental change, sounds as if it comes from movement in the seas, such as major currents. In fact the original connotation was that of irreversible change in form wrought by the sea. This is prompted by a query from Linda Chapman, who writes: "For some reason, I find myself intrigued with the phrase sea change. Yes, I looked it up in the dictionary and thesaurus -- but when did this phrase originate?"
We can be sure that it dates from as early as 1611, because that was when Shakespeare's The Tempest was first performed. Ariel's song has the lines:
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.
The connotation of irreversibility in sea change has been lost. One can now talk about a sea change in a party's policies without suggesting that the party will never change again. Just as well, because a consistent political party is a contradiction in terms.
Word for Word articles