For Those Who Cringe at the Word “Seminal” When Used in Academic Discourse

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Jenny Davis (Sociology, James Madison University) writes what she calls a “public service announcement” over at Cyborgology.  “Dont Say Seminal, It’s Sexist,” Professor Davis explains:

Yes, “seminal” refers simultaneously to groundbreaking intellectual work and male bodily fluids expelled at the peak of sexual excitement.  First, the metaphor doesn’t even entirely make sense. although the work, like the fluid, is a seed, to earn the seminal descriptor, a work has to have grown into something rich and complex.  It cannot, as semen is wont to do, shoot into an unreceptive environment where it is wiped away, left to quickly die, and ultimately forgotten. Moreover, the metaphor is downright vulgar.  It evokes (at least for me) the image of some dude splooging his ideas all over everything. Finally, and most importantly, the metaphor is blatantly sexist.

To refer to something as “seminal” is equivalent to the compulsory use of the masculine pronoun “he” when one really means “person.” The compulsory “he” has long fallen out of favor (though what “he” should be replaced with is a debate in itself, but I digress), and yet “seminal” persists as an integral part of speech and writing.

Read her full post here.

Professor Davis responds in a subsequent post (here) to what she identifies as four “thematic critiques,” namely:

  • Critique one:  seminal comes from the Latin word “semen” which means “seed” (not sperm) and therefore does not maintain inherent masculine connotations.
  • Critique two: sperm and eggs are both human seeds. Sperm are active and eggs are passive, so it is logical, not sexist, to equate foundational ideas with the active variant.
  • Critique three: “ovulary” as an alternate term is equally sexist.
  • Critique four: I don’t think of sperm when I use the word seminal, therefore my use of the term is not sexist. The author’s interpretation is idiosyncratic and therefore invalid.

Professor Davis effectively each critique, calling out faulty logic, biased premises and incomplete reasoning.  Her full response is worth reading.

-Bridget Crawford

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One Response to For Those Who Cringe at the Word “Seminal” When Used in Academic Discourse

  1. Jennifer Hendricks says:

    I understand not wanting to give up a useful word because of its origins, but this one does make me cringe. I use “foundational,” which is usually more descriptively accurate than the idea of a seed anyway.

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