Stop Using the Word “Seminal”

Ages ago, when I was applying to graduate school, I had a new professor and recent doctoral graduate look over the paper I was using as my writing sample. She only had one comment: “You need to not use the word ‘seminal’ … ever preferably, but especially when you’re discussing women.” At the time I had no idea what the issue with “seminal” was, now I do.

In the literary field the word “seminal” used to be very much in fashion, and it still surfaces from time to time, usually from newer authors. It’s a very “college” word, one people tend to use to make themselves look fancy, like “eponymous” (which I am guilty of overusing) or “mimetic.” Recently I saw “seminal” used in a talk about Toni Morrison – I winced. Why? Well let’s look at the definition of “seminal”:

  1. of, relating to, or consisting of seed or semen
  2. containing or contributing the seeds of later development

First of all, in the literary field, the term is (almost always) used when referring to a person’s best-known or most highly-regarded work, so even if we’re using definition #2 it’s being used incorrectly. Second, even the dictionary is giving primacy to a definition that is explicitly and exclusively linked to male biology. Problematic. If there’s one thing Morrison’s work is not it’s seminal as in definition #1, perhaps you can use it correctly when discussing Song on Solomon, but what about Sula? Even if you can use the word doesn’t mean that you should want to use it. Going deeper into the etymology of seminal we need to look at its Latin root.

from Latin seminalis, from semin-, semen seed

Wow, “semin, semen seed” that is one seminal Lain root right there. So what’s the big deal? Basically in using the word “seminal” to describe a literary work, even if you have definition #2 in mind, you’re still referencing a Lain root use that is grounded in male sexual reproduction. This is problematic because it implies that the origin of a work is male, regardless of who wrote it. This is not about being “PC” (which in moderation it not the worst thing that could happen to the world*), it is about retiring a word from academic use – for both students and scholars – that places the locus of origin not simply in masculinity, but in biological maleness.

The Man's Journal for Men

Perhaps if you want to publish in The Man’s Journal for Men: Bildungroman and Hemingway Edition then by all means, use the word, I won’t complain. Heck, I’d love to see that journal, it sounds tense. For everyone/thing else, using “seminal” will elicit eye rolls and admonishments from informed members of your audience. If I’m there, I might just “boo” you, and wouldn’t that be unpleasant? Use of “seminal” will communicate to your audience that you are out of touch or, even worse, being purposefully disrespectful to the author or work that you are discussing.

* I cannot help but think of a 1960s newspaper article I stumbled upon with an op-ed about the “high heel fashion trend” from a respected, male, war correspondent. In it he related an anecdote about a fat woman (yes, he literally calls her out for being fat) who got her high heel stuck in a grate on the street and had to be rescued by the writer. Even though she’s stupid, he notes, at least it gave him a chance to be chivalrous, which is a dying profession because of stupid feminism. What a gentleman.

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