things of little relevance

February 10, 2010, 9:32 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Justin E.H. Smith (his blog is so fantastic!) defends the use of “seminal” in academic discourse:

One might reply that de facto ‘seminal’ has come to connote male animal seed, and thus that when applied to ideas it connotes male ideas (whatever those might be). On this line of thinking, whatever the term may have originally connoted in Latin does not matter, and it is futile to insist on a strict, etymologically based understanding of the term, since actual use determines meaning, and so on. But it seems to me that this very line of thinking brings to light a deeper problem than the one addressed by a cosmetic correction of language: that in our way of thinking, and not only in our way of speaking, generative force, whether of ideas or of offspring, is associated with the male, that it is males who carry the seeds of things. The solution to this problem, however, is not to stop using the word ‘seed’ and its associated adjectives, of which ‘seminal’ is one, but rather to seek to revive the full range of possible connotations of these words, to insist that what is seminal is not just the ejaculations, verbal or fluid, of the male of the species. Rather than reducing the number of entries in the lexicon, we should be seeking to increase the number of meanings listed under each entry, especially those with such a rich historical life, and such a basic and deep connection to human experience of the natural world, as ‘semen’.

I still prefer ‘man’ to ‘human beings,’ if only because the former is more precise. I never realized ‘seminal’ had such a overt sexist connotation. Regardless, I’ve always liked the word and will continue to use it.


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