The Grammarphobia Blog

Let’s fathom a “sea change”

Q: Where does the term “sea change” come from? I know what it means, but I don’t know anything about its origin.

A: The expression “sea change” originally referred to a change caused by the sea, but it’s now used figuratively to mean a significant change or transformation.

The phrase was coined by Shakespeare in The Tempest to describe the vision of a drowned body. In Act I, scene 2, Ariel sings to Ferdinand about his father, Prospero:

“Full fathom five they 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 entry for “sea change” in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language includes this modern quote from the playwright Harold Pinter: “The script suffered considerable sea changes, especially in structure.”

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