Buzzword of the Week: Sea Change

buzzword sea change
buzzword sea change

Language is a living thing, and it's especially frisky when it comes to buzzwords. For people on the cutting edge of business, politics and culture, using up-to-the-minute jargon doesn't just make one sound sophisticated; it can also indicate an awareness of the latest ideas and concepts. For this reason, most buzzwords are of fairly recent vintage, reflecting technological and cultural changes.

But every so often, a classic slips in. For example, "sea change," a current favorite, has roots stretching back 400 years to one of the English language's most famous wordsmiths, William Shakespeare. In the legendary playwright's final piece, The Tempest, a spirit, Ariel, uses the phrase to refer to a profound metamorphosis. Telling a young man that his father, Alonso, lies dead on the ocean floor, Ariel sings:

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.

Writers and artists love the phrase "sea change" and it has popped up in many works: Ernest Hemingway named a short story after it and more recently the musician Beck borrowed it for the title of an album. Five books have sported the title, including Robert Parker's Sea Change, which was later adapted as a TV movie starring Tom Selleck. Similarly, the popular animated series Transformers co-opted it as an episode title, and in Australia it has become particularly prominent, first as the title of two television shows, and now as a demographic term symbolizing people who leave cities to restart their lives in the countryside.

"Sea change" indicates a fundamental transformation with far-reaching, revolutionary ramifications. However, for most buzzword-slingers, it has come to mean almost any change at all. In October, for example, Fast Money's Lee Brodie argued that "Higher prices for commodities such as corn are generating a sea change in the market." Does this mean that people have sworn off corn? Have they perhaps moved on to a seaweed-only diet or pledged to consume only ramen and ketchup packets until prices go down? Will thousands of Americans start eating grass and dirt?

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Well, no. Actually, as the video goes on to point out, "Everywhere you look, consumers are looking to pinch pennies." In other words, the "sea change" is actually increased thrift, paired with a determination to make companies pay for the increased cost of commodities.

Similarly, John Walsh, Acting Comptroller of the Currency, recently unveiled an FDIC proposal that he described as "a sea change ... that breaks the link between deposit insurance and deposits for the first time." Lest his audience miss the point, Walsh went on to note that, "This is quite significant."

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So what was the change? Was the FDIC closing up shop? Was it going to allow banks to operate without insurance? Was it perhaps off-shoring its insuring operations or turning them over to a bunch of beefy guys in flashy suits?

Well, no. Actually, the FDIC's new move will allow banks to rejigger the assets that they factor in when assessing their need for insurance. Ultimately, it is likely to drop their insurance rates by between 20% and 50%. While significant -- or even "quite significant" -- this is hardly a sea change.

As sea changes work their way further and further into common usage, one thing remains clear: profound, fundamental transformation is a rare thing. In some ways, that was Shakespeare's point. Even The Tempest's original sea change was over-hyped: Alonso did not die and was not transformed. Unfortunately, small, subtle changes don't wow audiences -- or draw in readers. Little wonder, then, that Brodie and Walsh were so eager to make much ado about nothing.