Monday, February 8, 2010

Plain English: Sea Change, Fall on One's Sword, and Panglossean

Political pundits sometimes stump their audience with expressions most Americans don’t understand. A few of the expressions widely used by the analysts on the Sunday morning TV round tables have literary origins. Here are three expressions the political analysts love to use:

Sea Change. The pundits say: “When it comes to universal health care, the American people have undergone a sea change.” Sea change means transformation. The dictionary traces the expression back to 1610, to Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Sea change may have been in use before Shakespeare, but once it appeared in his play, Shakespeare got the credit for coining the phrase.

In The Tempest, Shakespeare wrote a beautiful song for the sprite Ariel to sing to Ferdinand who thinks that his father, the King of Naples, has drowned in a shipwreck. Ariel sings the following song meant to console the grieving son by reminding him that death transforms us. Though drowned beneath the ocean, Ariel describes the beauty of the transformation as a sea change into something rich and strange:

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.

Sea nymphs hourly ring his knell:


Hark! Now I hear them – ding-dong bell.

(The Tempest, Act I, Scene ii, Lines 397-405)

Fall on One’s Sword. The expression means to kill yourself, to die with honor by your own hand before the enemy captures you. The pundits often use the term figuratively to mean “resign from office.” They suggested that Donald Rumsfeld should fall on his sword or that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales should fall on his sword. I’m sure voters in Utah would like to see Senator Larry Craig fall on his sword. To fall on one’s sword is also portrayed in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, and Anthony and Cleopatra, all dramas set in ancient Rome. The expression, however, predates Shakespeare. Committing suicide rather than being captured was a cultural point of honor among Roman soldiers, especially among officers. Suicide was considered honorable rather than cowardly in ancient cultures, and survives today in both Japan and Italy. Japanese and Italian businessmen who have been jailed for stock fraud, for example, commit suicide in order to redeem the honor of their families.

How exactly does one fall on a sword? In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Cassius orders his slave to kill him with the dagger Cassius used to stab Caesar. Brutus, on the other hand, asks a friend to hold a sword while he impales himself on it.

Panglossian. This term means “overly optimistic.” In Voltaire’s Candide, Pangloss is Candide’s tutor whose motto is “all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” Since Candide is pure satire, someone who is a Pangloss or whose words are Panglossian is a fool who is out of touch with reality. Thus when the pundits describe government reports and forecasts on the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq as Panglossian, they mean that the reports are not only overly optimistic, but naïve, distorted, or flat-out wrong. I have seen Panglossian in headlines in the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, and heard the expression used often by political analyst George Will.

I taught The Tempest, Julius Caesar, and Candide to hundreds of students in West Texas, so it’s possible that the expressions will continue to be used and understood for at least another generation in America. Or am I being Panglossian? Perhaps there will be a sea change, and English teachers will have to fall on their swords, figuratively speaking, of course.


Mary Jane McKinney is the creator and owner of LLC, publisher of grammar, style, and proofreading exercises that use sentences from literature. She is a former high school English teacher and dedicated grammarian whose column Plain English appears in several Texas newspapers. LLC, P.O. Box 299, Christoval, TX 76935,, 325-896-2479,

1 comment:

Daggers said...

its a really very informative post thanks for sharing us.