(Edit: 04/30/2014 Due to the strong response to this piece, I’ve written a formal response)
Consider this a PSA for the #TtW14 participants, for whom I have so much respect and admiration. Please, you smart and wonderful people, refrain from using “seminal” as a metaphor for foundational ideas.
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. I’ve heard some very strident feminists refer to Judith Butler’s work as “seminal.” I mean, really!? Judith Butler!?
If we take seriously the idea that scholarship and social justice are interwoven projects, it is important that we always reflect—self critically—upon how we communicate scholarly ideas. If and when we do so in ways that perpetuate inequalities or marginalization, we should recognize and alter our linguistic choices. In this spirit, I searched my own dropbox (which goes back several years, and contains most of the things I’ve written as a professional sociologist) for the word “seminal.” The search came back with a count of 99. That’s right, I have 99 seminals and most of them are mine[i]. Luckily, a few years ago a respected colleague pointed me in the right direction regarding my (apparent over) use of the term.
I bring this up not to call anyone out or make them feel bad. I bring it up to help us, as a conscientious community, speak and write more conscientiously. I am posting it before the #TtW14 conference in hopes of minimizing uncritical semen references as we move through the weekend. Of course, I realize that not everyone reads the blog regularly, and even those who do may miss this particular post. So if someone leaks some semen into their talk[ii] please be gracious. Presenting in front of a group of people is generally terrifying, and I certainly don’t want to be responsible for detracting from the exchange of ideas. But, if you do read this, please don’t say seminal. If you hear someone else say it, ask them more about their project, compliment their work, and, if it feels right, gently question their use of the term.
For those of you who now have to rewrite a portion of your paper, here are some alternatives: