These days we understand the phrase “sea change” to reflect something new and positive in one’s life. It is frequently used to describe a significant transformation in a person or in one’s lifestyle.
In Australia, it has also come to mean a physical move from the city or the country to live closer to the ocean, or even taking a holiday at the beach.
The phrase hasn’t always had such positive associations.
In Act 1, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s play ’The Tempest’, Prospero’s familiar spirit Ariel sings a song that makes Ferdinand believe that his father, Alonso, has drowned in a shipwreck, and that his father is buried at sea “full fathom five”, or five fathoms deep. Through the action of the water on his remains, his body is undergoing substantive changes: his eyes are turning into pearls and his bones into coral. There is nothing left of him that has not been transformed by the sea.
Even worse, this story of the shipwreck and drowning is not true. It is, in fact, a ruse by Prospero to orchestrate a marriage match between his daughter, Miranda, and Ferdinand. Prospero is quite comfortable with using trickery and misleading magic to achieve what he wants to, and this is not the only time during this play that he willingly deceives others to get what he wants.
So, even though it does still reflect a significant transformation, it has much darker connotations than the term does now. Deceit, manipulation, grief and emotional blackmail all factor into the origins of this phrase that we use so differently today.
Many people assume that “What the dickens?” is a reference to the author Charles Dickens.
Considering that Shakespeare wrote this expression in ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ in 1600 and Charles Dickens was born in 1812, that is entirely impossible.
Instead, ‘dickens’ is a euphemism for ‘devil’, as is ‘deuce’. When Mrs Page says “I cannot tell what the dickens his name is…” she really means ‘what the devil”.
It’s a more polite way of expressing strength of an idea or emphasising their intent, in this case, that she has no idea of the identity of the person she is being asked about. It’s exactly the same as people saying ‘heck’ instead of hell, ‘gosh’ instead of ‘God’ and ‘jeez’ instead of ‘Jesus’, and is probably done for the same reason: superstitious avoidance of using religious terms, or “using in vain” the names of religious entities.
There’s also a chance that, for some folks, old-fashioned good manners may enter into it, too.
In short, this is a euphemism: an inoffensive word or phrase used to replace an impolite or offensive one. We use euphemism when we talk about “powdering my nose” or “going to see a man about a dog” instead of “going to the bathroom”, or “bathroom” instead of “toilet”.
Like many of Shakespeare’s words and phrases, “what the dickens” has stood the test of time and is still used as a euphemism today.
When people say this, they usually assume it means that the world is at their feet and they are in a position where everything is going to work in their favour. Others say it to imply that they are “the pearl” and they are being cultivated for greatness.
However, when these lines were spoken in Shakespeare’s ’The Merry Wives of Windsor’, the intention is actually quite different.
In a conversation between two less-than-reputable characters, this conversation takes place:
In other words, if Falstaff won’t give him money, Pistol will go and take it forcibly from other people. It’s about taking what one is not entitled to, and it has quite violent connotations.
An oyster does not willingly open – it has to be forced. An oyster does not willingly give up its pearl, which can take years to develop, and the oyster is often damaged or killed in the process of extracting the pearl.
This is an image of violence, and not one of happy or fortunate circumstances at all.