linguistics and lexicography Love English

Seachangers, salad days and skim milk

© CorbisIn her third and final post about the links between the language of Shakespeare and the language of today, BuzzWord author Kerry Maxwell shows how the Bard’s metaphors live on in modern English.


In Australian English, the word seachanger has in recent years become the catchy new way to describe a person who shuns the city for a more relaxing lifestyle on the coast. With the country’s associations of blue skies, beaches and ‘barbies’, this seems highly appropriate, but the extraordinary truth is that the origins of this newcomer to the Aussie lexicon are a good deal older than Captain Cook’s first voyage to its shores.

In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, supernatural spirit Ariel sings to Ferdinand after the apparent drowning of his father, uttering the words:

  … Nothing of him that doth fade, But doth suffer a sea-change, Into something rich and strange.

In these lines, Shakespeare meant that Ferdinand’s old man’s submersion in the sea had caused him to undergo a profound transformation, some kind of metamorphosis. Such a captivating metaphor took hold in everyday English, sea change eventually parting company with its lyrical context and becoming a more general metaphor for any kind of major, significant change. The tides of usage eventually wore away the hyphen, and latterly even the word space too, the expression so in vogue that it recently provided inspiration for new Aussie buzzwords seachanger/seachanging (which interestingly have even morphed into treechanger/treechanging as alternative monikers for a move to the countryside).

This is just one example of the Bard’s use of metaphor, an idea so engaging that we still connect with it today, but there are of course many others. Long before the supermarkets were stocking low fat dairy alternatives, Shakespeare used the term skim milk as a derogatory reference to a nobleman in Henry IV Part 1, the idea being that the chap’s lack of honour and virtue was comparable to milk without the creaminess. In King Lear, Edmund talks about the wheel of fortune coming full circle. Here, the character’s villainous acts returning to haunt him are compared to a circular route which ends at its starting point. And in Anthony and Cleopatra, the ageing queen describes her younger years as salad days, the carefree innocence of youth compared to the short-lived green of young salad leaves. These are just a few instances, Shakespeare’s works, as those from other literary giants, being rich in metaphor.

Today, we’re so accustomed to metaphor as an entirely natural bit of language colour, that we’re often not even conscious of the metaphorical meanings of familiar words (e.g. a battle with illness, a stormy relationship), and if we make the leap from ‘Bard words’ to BuzzWords, our posts show that metaphor is a very popular mechanism for creating attention-grabbing new expressions. Some recent examples include tiger mother (or in the US, tiger mom), a strict mum who restricts her offspring’s leisure time and insists on academic excellence (apparently stemming from tiger cubs’ ability to ‘move faster’ than other feline young), iceberg home, a house in which the majority of the living space is underground (likened to the floating piece of ice largely invisible from the sea’s surface), bagel, to win a set in tennis with a score of 6-0 against your opponent (apparently inspired by the baked ring of dough of the same name), and unicorn, a newly established company whose value has reached more than a billion dollars (this level of success considered so unlikely it was compared to a mythical creature).

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Kerry Maxwell

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