metamorphosis, n.

Forms:  lME methamorphosyos, 15 metamorphosys, 15– metamorphosis.

Etymology:  < classical Latin metamorphōsis (only with reference to the work by Ovid; in post-classical Latin in sense 1a (5th cent.)) < Hellenistic Greek μεταμόρϕωσις < μετα-meta- prefix + μόρϕωσιςmorphosis n., after μεταμορϕοῦν to transform. Compare Middle French, French métamorphose (c1365 as a translation of the title of the work by Ovid; 1493 in Middle French in sense 1a; 1668 in sense 2; 1736 in sense 3a). Compare also Italian metamorfosi (1499), Spanish metamorfosis (c1620).

The first Latin use is in the plural form Metamorphōsēs as the title of a poem by Ovid in the classical tradition of tales about transformations of gods or humans into the shapes of animals, plants, or inanimate objects. Subsequent uses in Latin, as well as the earliest uses in English, allude to or are strongly influenced by Ovid’s poem. English forms of the title of the poem are numerous until the 16th cent., from which time only the standard singular and plural forms are used:

c1390    Chaucer Man of Law’s Tale B.93   Me were looth be likned‥To Muses that men clepe Pierides; Methamorphosios [v.rr. Methamorphoseos, Metham orphaseos, Methanorphoseos, Methemore phees, Meche more phees] woot what I mene.

a1393    Gower Confessio Amantis (Fairf.) i. 389   In Metamor it telleth thus.

a1393    Gower Confessio Amantis (Fairf.) v. 6711   Ovide‥in his Methamor‥tolde A tale.

c1425    Lydgate Troyyes Bk. (Augustus A. 4) v. 1973   Þus seith Ovide‥In his boke of transformacioun Methamorphoseos.

1531    T. Elyot Bk. named Gouernour i. x. sig. Eij,   I wolde set nexte vnto hym two bokes of Ouid, the one called Metamorphosios, whiche is as moche to saye, as chaungynge of men in to other figure or fourme. 

Greek μεταμορϕοῦν has a wider application, and appears in the gospels with the sense ‘transfigure’ transfigure v. 1b; some examples of the use of metamorphosis and related words in post-classical Latin reflect this gospel use (compare metamorphist n. 1). 

N.E.D. (1906    ) gives only the pronunciation (metămǭ·ɹfŏsis) /mɛtəˈmɔːfəsɪs/ . The alternative pronunciation with stress on the fourth syllable is apparently first mentioned as occurring in British usage by H. W. Fowler Mod. Eng. Usage (1926), who describes it as ‘more regular’ and as ‘still often heard’ (this impression of its former currency appears to be mistaken); it is recorded in the Shorter Oxf. Eng. Dict. (1933), and is also given in later editions of D. Jones Eng. Pronouncing Dict. The same stress is given, without an alternative, in W. A. N. Dorland Amer. Illustr. Med. Dict. (1900), but the absence of such a pronunciation from other medical dictionaries (American and otherwise) of similar date makes it doubtful that a stressed fourth syllable was a distinctive feature of medical usage.


 a. The action or process of changing in form, shape, or substance; esp. transformation by supernatural means.

1447    O. Bokenham Lives of Saints 5034   Mynerue hyr-self‥ne coude prouyde More goodly aray, þow she dede en[cl]os Wyth-ynne oo web al methamorphosyos.

1533    T. More Debellacyon Salem & Bizance f. 1v,   Salem & Bizans somtime two great townes‥were‥with a meruelouse metamorphosys, enchaunted and turned into twoo englyshe men.

1598    J. Marston (title)    The metamorphosis of Pigmalions image.

1619    E. M. Bolton tr. Florus Rom. Hist. 115   As if by a kind of metamorphosis, the gods had‥changed trees to vessels.

1674    Govt. Tongue xii. 204   One would think we were fallen into an Age of Metamorphosis, and that the Brutes did (not only Poetically and in fiction) but really speak. For the talk of many is so bestial, that [etc.].

1712    Spectator 28 June 602/2   What more strange, than the Creation of the World, the several Metamorphoses of the fallen Angels.

1794    R. J. Sulivan View of Nature IV. 179   From the metempsychosis, however, arose the doctrine of the metamorphosis.

1856    J. Ruskin Mod. Painters III. 290   A fourth‥will begin to change them in his fancy into dragons and monsters, and lose his grasp of the scene in fantastic metamorphosis.

1869    H. F. Tozer Res. Highlands of Turkey II. 264   The points‥on which the stories turn are transformations and metamorphoses of various kinds.

1899    R. C. Temple in Folk-lore Dec. 411   The sole difference between the folk notions of metamorphosis and metempsychosis lies in the fact of the former consisting in change of form during life, and in the latter after death.

1939    H. Miller Tropic of Capricorn 80,   I wanted a metamorphosis, a change to fish, to leviathan, to destroyer.

1978    A. S. Byatt Virgin in Garden i. xiii. 137   She located a man becoming a stag, a creature whose tortured energy of metamorphosis was something like that of the foliate men in Southwell Minster.

1983    P. de Man Rhetoric of Romanticism (1984) 240   Anthropomorphisms can contain a metaphorical as well as a metonymic moment—as in an Ovidian metamorphosis in which one can start out from the contiguity of the flower’s name to that of the mythological figure in the story.

†b. A metamorphosed form or state. Obs.

1574    B. Rich Riight Excelent Dialogue Mercury & Eng. Souldier sig. Miiiv,   Those that are in deed Metamorphosis hauing but the shapes of men.

1589    R. Greene Menaphon sig. H4v,   Samela‥stoode amazed like Medusaes Metamorphosis.

1651    T. Randolph et al. Hey for Honesty ii. i. 11/2   But come you Pig-hogs, let us leave jesting. I restore you to your old metamorphosis, as you may see in the first leaf of Virgil’s Bucolicks.

1719    J. Barker Exilius II. iii. 236,   I am sure I shall be as great a Metamorphosis in Manners, as thou art in Person.

1789    Philos. Trans. (Royal Soc.) 79 69,   I find the whole island formed of an argillaceous earth, either in its primitive state, or under its different metamorphoses.

1859    ‘G. Eliot’ Adam Bede I. i. vi. 138   An amount of fat on the nape of her neck, which made her look like the metamorphosis of a white sucking pig. 

 2. A complete change in the appearance, circumstances, condition, or character of a person, a state of affairs, etc.

1548    Hall’s Vnion: Henry VI f. clxj,   Ihon Cade‥departed secretly in habite disguysed, into Sussex: but all his metamorphosis or transfiguracion, litle preuailed.

1598    R. Barckley Disc. Felicitie of Man iii. 187   The Hermite‥asked him how it chaunced, that he was fallen into such a metamorphosis?

1656    Earl of Monmouth tr. T. Boccalini Ragguagli di Parnasso i. xxix. 49   The Metamorphosis is too great, when from being a privat man, one becomes a Prince.

1691    A. Wood Athenæ Oxon. I. 825   News was brought him of a metamorphosis in the State at home.

1725    E. Haywood Fantomina 268   Notwithstanding this Metamorphosis she was still extremely pretty.

1791    J. Boswell Life Johnson anno 1753 I. 137   Whatever agreement a Chief might make with any of the clan, the Herald’s Office could not admit of the metamorphosis.

1820    W. Scoresby Acct. Arctic Regions I. 386   The mountains along the whole coast, assumed the most fantastic forms.‥ These varied and sometimes beautiful metamorphoses‥suggested the reality of fairy descriptions.

1853    C. Brontë Villette II. xxviii. 317   It [sc. his visage] changed as from a mask to a face.‥ I know not that I have ever seen in any other human face an equal metamorphosis.

1857    H. T. Buckle Hist. Civilisation Eng. viii. 519   By a singular metamorphosis, the secular principle was now represented by the Catholics, and the theological principle by the Protestants.

1867    L. M. Child Romance of Repub. v. 64   The disguises were quickly assumed, and the metamorphosis made Rosa both blush and smile.

1911    M. Beerbohm Zuleika Dobson v. 71   Do not fear that I, if you were to wed me, should demand a metamorphosis of your present self. I should take you as you are, gladly.

1993    Times 9 Feb. 27/6   The change from saying nothing to being quasi-judges can hardly be described as a comfortable metamorphosis.


 a. Biol. Change of form in an animal (†or plant), or its parts, during post-embryonic development; spec. the process of transformation from an immature form to a different adult form that many insects and other invertebrates, and some vertebrates (e.g. frogs), undergo in the course of maturing. Also: an instance of this.

1665    Philos. Trans. (Royal Soc.) 1 88   Their [sc. silkworms’] metamorphoses are four.

1722    J. Quincy Lex. Physico-medicum (ed. 2) ,   Metamorphosis, is applied by Harvey to the Changes an Animal undergoes both in its Formation and Growth; and by several to the various Shapes some Insects in particular pass through, as the Silk Worm and the like.

1797    Encycl. Brit. XIV. 712/1   A new form or change of appearance is always implied in metamorphosis or transformation‥; as when the lobes of a seed are converted into seminal leaves.

1828    J. Stark Elements Nat. Hist. II. 232   The transformations or metamorphoses of insects embrace three states.

1881    F. M. Balfour Treat. Compar. Embryol. II. 113   The change undergone by the Tadpole in its passage into the Frog is so considerable as to deserve the name of a metamorphosis.

1888    G. Rolleston & W. H. Jackson Forms Animal Life (ed. 2) 161   A perfect metamorphosis, such as that of Sphinx, with three well-marked stages, larva, pupa, and imago.

1934    J. A. Thomson & E. J. Holmyard Biol. for Everyman I. iii. 38   Phagocytes‥may act as sappers and miners when the body is undergoing some great change (metamorphosis), as when a maggot becomes a fly.

1955    Sci. News Let. 14 May 313/2   The fishfly, which begins its slow, nocturnal flights about this time of the year, is among the earliest insects with complete metamorphosis, fossil records show.

1998    L. Margulis & K. V. Schwartz Five Kingdoms (ed. 3) iii. 291/2   In gastropods, bivalves, and scaphopods, the trochophore larvae develop into veliger larvae‥before metamorphosis to the adult form.

 b. Biol. (chiefly Bot.). Evolutionary change in the form of an organ. Also (Bot.): change of one type of organ into another as an abnormal process, as in staminody or petalody. Also: an instance of such change. Now rare.

The use of this sense in botany was influenced by Goethe’s Versuch die Metamorphose der Pflanzen (1790).

1835    W. Kirby On Power of God in Creation of Animals II. xvii. 137   If we go from the Cetaceans to the Amphibians, we see a further metamorphosis of the organs of motion.

1839    Penny Cycl. XV. 131/2   Metamorphosis of organs, in the Vegetable Kingdom, consists in an adaptation of one and the same organ to several different purposes.

1847–9    Todd’s Cycl. Anat. & Physiol. IV. 623/2   A unity which has undergone such an infinitely graduated metamorphosis of its parts as to yield these unequal skeletal forms.

1849    J. H. Balfour Man. Bot. §641. 307   The different parts of the flower may be changed into each other, or into true leaves.‥ These changes may take place from without inwards, by an ascending or direct metamorphosis, as in the case of petals becoming stamens; or from within outwards, by descending or retrograde metamorphosis, as when stamens become petals.

1876    E. R. Lankester tr. Haeckel Hist. Creation I. iv. 90   His [sc. Goethe’s] idea of metamorphosis is almost synonymous with the theory of development.

1903    W. H. Lang Strasburger’s Text-bk. Bot. (ed. 2) i. 10   The various modifications which the primitive form has passed through constitute its metamorphosis.

c. Histol. and Pathol. Change of form in a cell or tissue; growth or repair of tissue. Now rare exc. in   fatty metamorphosis n. accumulation of lipid in the cytoplasm of cells, esp. of the liver.

1839–47    Todd’s Cycl. Anat. & Physiol. III. 750/1   The production of the simple structureless membranes‥must be attributed, we think, to the consolidation of a thin layer of blastema, rather than to any metamorphosis of cells.

1845–6    G. E. Day tr. J. F. Simon Animal Chem. I. 133   The metamorphosis [of blood-corpuscles] occurs in the peripheral system.

1857    E. L. Birkett Bird’s Urin. Deposits (ed. 5) 440   Every animal developes,‥during the process of metamorphosis of tissue, a series of nitrogenized substances.

1864    E. A. Parkes Man. Pract. Hygiene i. vi. 156   There is a much more rapid metamorphosis of tissue in carnivorous animals.

1886    Buck’s Handbk. Med. Sci. III. 47/2   Fatty metamorphosis (both degeneration and infiltration) may generally be detected with the unaided eye.

1899    T. C. Allbutt et al. Syst. Med. VI. 158   Contact with the abnormal surface sets up an immediate viscous metamorphosis of the platelets.

1928    E. V. Cowdry Special Cytol. I. ii. 36   In the sebaceous glands the secretory products are elaborated by the fatty metamorphosis, destruction and discharge of the cells themselves.

1968    Cancer 21 699   Fatty metamorphosis of the liver in malignant neoplasia.

1999    Amer. Jrnl. Gastroenterol. 94 3010   The most likely histological diagnosis is fatty metamorphosis of the liver with occasional associated fibrosis.

†d. Chem. and Biochem. A chemical reaction, esp. one involving catalytic or enzymatic action; a metabolic change; metabolism (esp. catabolism). Obs.

1843    R. J. Graves Syst. Clin. Med. Introd. Lect. 34   Professor Liebig applied the name of metamorphosis to those chemical actions in which a given compound by the presence of a peculiar substance, is made to resolve itself into two or more compounds.

1853    W. B. Carpenter Princ. Human Physiol. (ed. 4) 47   When there is a deficiency of fatty matters in the food, these may be formed by a metamorphosis of its saccharine constituents.

1853    W. B. Carpenter Princ. Human Physiol. (ed. 4) 52   The chemical metamorphoses which take place in the economy.

1862    W. A. Miller Elements Chem.: Org. (ed. 2) III. 58, 61   Production of Chemical Metamorphoses.‥1. Oxidation.‥2. Metamorphoses by Reduction.‥3. Metamorphoses by Substitution.

1867    Philos. Trans. (Royal Soc.) 157 182   Different experimenters have examined the products of its [sc. gun-cotton’s] metamorphosis at different stages.

1875    A. W. Bennett & W. T. T. Dyer tr. J. Sachs Text-bk. Bot. iii. ii. 631   Transitory metamorphoses appear to take place also when the albuminoids stored up in the reservoirs of reserve-materials are being transported and consumed.