What is a sea change?

At an in-house writers’ circle Thursday, one colleague brought up “sea change,” a phrase that seems overused these days. We wondered where it came from and what it truly means. I thought of it as a complete turnaround, a 180-degree shift in the course of a ship. But that’s not quite right.

A “sea change” is defined as a profound change or a transformation in the very nature of something. After a “sea change” the thing is fundamentally different.

Evan Morris in “The Word Detective,” along with other sources, says the term comes from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”


Shakespeare meant a transformation brought about by the sea. He wrote these lines:

But doth suffer a sea-changeinto something rich and strange.

Besides fundamental change, a sea change also occurs over time. We could say the role of women in the western world has undergone a sea change. The change is profound and it happened over many years. A sea change is not like a wave swelling and crashing on the shore.

The Mavens’ Word of the Day and World Wide Words also explain “sea change.” Professor Paul Brians says to avoid the phrase.

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.