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Semen: Now That’s Seminal

6/9/2011 10:43:07 AM

Tags: arts, writing, music, language, media, Keith Goetzman

Sperm graffito, Amsterdam 

The word seminal is thrown around a lot these days. A seminal band, a seminal book, a seminal figure, a seminal work—it’s easy to attach this adjective to a noun, particularly in arts writing, to give the subject a sense of groundbreaking importance, even if none actually exists. But to me, seminal conjures mostly one thing: semen.

That’s the root of the word, you know. Seminal is the adjectival form of semen. Maybe, as a word person, I simply know too much about the roots and origins of language, but every time I see the overused term, I picture an anatomical illustration from my junior-high human sexuality class that also includes terms like vas deferens and loop of Henle. To me, it’s not poetic or descriptive or eloquent, just clinical.

Can we take a break from the ejaculatory locutions, please?

To be sure, the dictionary does back up those who intend the word to mean “creative” or “original”—this is the second definition, after all, following “of, relating to, or consisting of seed and semen” in Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. But even this doesn’t quite capture what most writers seem to mean, which is more like “pioneering,” “groundbreaking,” or “influential.” Why not just use one of those less, um, loaded terms?

In any case, many writers who employ the word seem not to consider its implications. Certainly, the Wikipedia author who wrote about feminist artist Judy Chicago did not. Chicago, the bio states, “co-founded the Feminist Studio Workshop, located inside the Los Angeles Women’s Building, a seminal feminist art teaching and exhibition space.”

A seminal feminist space! Who woulda thunk it? I suppose the same people who have called Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique a “seminal feminist text,” or former L7 singer Donita Sparks, whose own website refers to the all-female group as “a seminal rock band.”

Even to a penis bearer like me, it seems awfully retrograde to suggest that the font of life springs entirely from the loins of human males. After all, it does take more than semen to make a baby—this I learned in that same junior-high class.

Rock critics and their corollaries in music publicity are some of the worst serial offenders. I can’t get through my e-mail day, which includes a healthy blast of music PR, without a reference to some “seminal” band I’ve never heard of. The Facebook page “Girl Rock Critics for the Eradication of the Word ‘Seminal’ ” attests to a small but already fizzled backlash: Its last posted comment was in 2008.

Well, I’m willing to take up the futile cause. After all, I still haven’t made my peace with anal as a synonym for fussy or detail-oriented. Which I suppose makes me kind of—oh, all right—anal. 

Image by Apokolokyntosis, licensed under Creative Commons. 

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