Jenna McWilliams: still not a seminal thinker

By | September 12, 2012

Almost three years ago I explained why I hate the words ‘seminal’ and ‘disseminate.’ Here’s the explanation, in brief:

Both words come from the latin root seminalis, or seed, from which we also get the word semen.

Now: seminal, disseminate, semen. All linked to the notion of the seed, the germination of all things that can grow: the sowing of ideas, of genes, of the next generation of people, texts, and theories. The terms, though we may not think of it in daily use, are innately masculine–innately male. A seminal idea is one that has taken root, has grown, has spread; it engenders offspring in which we can see (genetic) elements of the initial idea, text, or approach. There’s not even a feminine equivalent. What would we say? He’s an ovulant thinker in his field?

As a female scholar, I resent the notion that my ideas may, if I’m lucky, be likened to the very masculine process of impregnation. I resent the paradigm that leads us to consider seminal ideas that allow other thinkers to bear fruit.

Since that post, I’ve made some headway in convincing some members of my scholarly circle to either replace those words with the dozens of alternatives provided within the English language, or to use those words but be aware of the way they sound to some Alert Feminist Readers.

At the same time, I’m still finding myself in conversation with people who think I’m a) overreacting, b) looking for something that’s not there, or c) being overly simplistic in my analysis of these terms. Lately this issue has taken on fresh meaning for me, since I’m studying for my qualifying exams and the word seminal, in particular, keeps rearing its ugly head.

So, at the risk of repeating myself, I want to reiterate my objections to the ongoing use of these terms. This time I’ll do it by outlining some general principles:

1. Cultures simultaneously reflect and reproduce belief systems. These belief systems include ideas about what counts as knowledge, what kinds of behaviors, values, and beliefs are “better” than other kinds, and who gets to be in charge of things like government, schools, law enforcement agencies, universities, and religious institutions, and what sorts of authority we’re going to bestow upon those leaders and the institutions they lead.


2. Language is one key area in which a culture simultaneously reflects and reproduces its belief systems. This includes not only the words that come into use (or fall out of favor) in a culture but also extends into how a language is structured, what sorts of words, metaphors and analogies are available to its users and how words are appropriated and recruited for use in new contexts. For example, in America we use the term “kindergarten” (German for “children’s garden”) to refer to a child’s first year of school because it aligns with our schoolish metaphor of cultivating learners. But “kindergarten” is not a universal term for that first year.


3. Over time, a culture’s vocabulary changes. This is true for a big huge pile of reasons, three of which being that certain words or terms get recognized for limiting our thinking, for being too limited in scope for some new purpose, or for being overtly offensive. For example:

The word meme was first coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins, but took off within the last decade to account for the wildfire spread of new cultural products, inside of which were contained new behaviors, values, or ideas. Think honeybadgers, lolcats,, and Antoine Dodson. Before the emergence of the internet, there was no need for the widespread use of the word meme, and now there is a need for such a word.

In America, the terms Negro and colored to describe Black people and American Indians to describe Native Americans or First Nations people have long fallen out of favor and are generally viewed as racist.


4. Some words in a culture may reflect yucky aspects of that culture’s belief system. This is so regardless of whether individual speakers of a language are explicitly aware of the connection between that word and its connection to yuckiness. This is why we tell kids to stop saying “that’s so gay” even if they aren’t aware that the phrase is linked to homophobia and heterosexism.


5. Individuals who are part of a nondominant group (i.e., are removed from power by dint of their gender, race, class, physical attributes/abilities, neurologies, or other characteristics) are far more likely to recognize words that reflect yucky beliefs about their group than are individuals who come from dominant groups. For a long time, I used the word “lame” to refer to things I didn’t like. I used “lame” like it was going out of style. As a non-disabled individual, I wasn’t primed to notice on my own that “lame” is a term that is characteristic of ableist language.


6. If an individual from a nondominant group (or an ally who is not part of that group) is able to articulate why she thinks a given term reflects yucky cultural beliefs, the person who has used that term is responsible to either justify continued use of the term or agree to abandon that term.


7. Justifications that do not count as reasonable include:

  • “But there’s not a better term to replace it with!” (Because if a word reflects yucky cultural beliefs, there’s always a better term, although it may require you to think harder about language than you want to.)
  • “I think you’re overreacting / seeing something that doesn’t exist / focusing on something that doesn’t matter.” Members of nondominant groups (and their allies) often see things that are not recognized by members of dominant groups. Because dominant groups get to be dominant, they get to spend a lot of time ignoring people who see things differently. That doesn’t make them right; that makes them oblivious. It’s not even necessarily their fault! They’re conditioned to be oblivious by a culture of power whose continued existence relies on nobody questioning the culture of power.


8. Justifications that do count as reasonable include:


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9. Because if a term feels yucky to a member of a nondominant group, why in the name of all things awesome would you want to keep using it? Seriously. That makes you part of the problem. And who wants to be part of the problem?

The words seminal and disseminate are yucky to me. Because they are linked to the word semen, and because the word semen is a definitively masculine term with definitively masculine connotations in our culture, they reflect masculinist views of knowledge production and reproduction. Dissemination–the literal spreading of semen, or seed–often happens without consent, and is therefore a matter of physical violence, most commonly perpetrated on women.

Dissemination–the literal as well as the metaphorical ejaculation of semen, or seed–also reflects a heterosexist worldview. If I’m a seminal thinker, that’s because my seeds have germinated–because they were fertilized, and took root, and grew. Because the spreading of seed also requires germination, now we’ve headed into the world of male-female sexual activity. You can tell me the root of the term is botanical, not biological, but you can’t argue that the root word, semen, is more strongly botanical in our culture than it is biological. Which means that in general use, the words semen, seminal, and disseminate are at least more strongly linked to the biological activity of heterocopulation than to the botanical activity of plant reproduction.

Here are some other words you can use. They may require you to think more deeply about what you’re trying to communicate, because each of these words means something slightly different than the others, but that’s what Good Thinkers do anyway!


seminal: critical, crucial, fundamental, important, influential, original, primary, distinctive, distinguished, esteemed, extraordinary, famous, foremost, incomparable, leading, notable, noted, noteworthy, preeminent, prominent, formative, generative, ingenious, innovative, unprecedented, untried, unusual

disseminate: distribute, scatter, broadcast, circulate, diffuse,disperse, promulgate, propagate, publicize, publish, radiate, sow, spread, strew, radiate, bestow, deal out, deliver, devote, disburse, dish out, dispense, mete, communicate, declare, decree, make public, spread, proliferate




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