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.”