A sea change as the Earth warms

The phrase 'sea change' is a short, effective way to describe major changes, especially in public opinion.

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Do you remember when global warming was only for crackpots? I surely do. The "greenhouse effect" used to be discussed occasionally in the science pages of newspapers but less often on the front pages.

Reports were carefully "balanced" with quotes from skeptical sources. "Maybe, but maybe not" was often the take-away message.

But last weekend, amid all the coverage of the Live Earth concerts around the world, we heard that there has been a "sea change" in attitudes. Today, global warming is an issue for rock stars and politicos. It is everywhere.

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We – those of us tuned in to some extent to public discourse – know something about this kind of changing of our collective mind on this or that public topic.

But is "sea change" exactly the right term?

Onelook.com offers as its quick definition of sea change: "a profound transformation." The individual dictionary entries to which Onelook provides access, however, also include some more literal definitions: "A change caused by the sea," for instance, in the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.

The phrase has a Shakespearean background, and no one who makes a halfway serious effort to find it will fail. It's from "The Tempest," a passage in which Ariel tells Ferdinand:

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 language is wonderfully poetic, but, not to put too fine a point on it in a family newspaper, it's describing the decomposition of a corpse underwater. Is that really the metaphor we want to build on to describe major changes, particularly of public opinion?

Ah, but it's so short! Two syllables, the first stressed, to give it some oomph: a sea change. What are the alternatives, especially for a headline writer in a hurry? Transformation? Metamorphosis? Come on.

So sea change it is. The phrase has been used in recent days to describe changes on the US Supreme Court, which half a century after Brown v. Board of Education, has just thrown out voluntary school desegregation programs in Louisville, Ky., and Seattle. "Sea change will test again whether separate can ever be equal" ran a headline in the Louisville Courier-Journal.

"Lugar's Defection May Signal Sea Change on Iraq" was the headline on an Associated Press story about the speech by Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana announcing his change of heart on the war.

A Washington Post review of a book on China includes a quote from the book: The "sea-change that was transforming China."

Some commentators complain that sea change gets thrown around loosely in the public square like this. All these examples do represent significant events, though. I can imagine them being discussed in Sunday newspapers of the year 2107.

But maybe the metaphor all these sea- changers are really looking for is that of the turning tide. It is, after all, a change in the sea, if not one wrought by it. The human connection with water and the oceans is so profound that it's natural that people look for metaphors there. And it doesn't take long, standing on a beach, for someone to get a sense of the water's movement at two levels – the crash in and roll out of individual waves and the larger movement of the incoming or outgoing tide.

And those two kinds of movement are good metaphors for two kinds of movement in politics and elsewhere in public discourse – the day-to-day events and the larger turning points.

Observing the sea also reminds us that no tide, whether ebb or flood, goes on forever, and that's an important lesson in nature as well as in human affairs.

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