Dead feminist Nobelist novelist’s work described as “seminal.” Srsly?

Doris Lessing died yesterday, as you may have heard.  As I was making sandwiches for lunches this morning, I heard the NPR top-of-the-hour news announcement about her death, and it actually described her work as “seminal.”  SEMINAL!  I am serious, as well as seriously disgusted. Dr. Crazy offers some thoughts on her post-graduate discovery and appreciation of Lessing, both The Golden Notebook and her later works.

Last night I finished semi-binge watching Jenji Kohan’s Orange is the New Black and am totally jonesing for season 2.  SPOILER ALERT:  Was anyone else impressed by the resonance of the last scene in the last episode to the scene in which Ralphie goes totally ape$hit on Scott Farcus in A Christmas Story?  It was seasonally as well as contextually appropriate–like the Christmas Story scene, it was in an alley, and Scott Farcus’s nasty teeth are nearly as disgusting as Pennsatucky’s teeth.  (But now I’m worried that Piper is going to spend Christmas in the shoe.)

22 thoughts on “Dead feminist Nobelist novelist’s work described as “seminal.” Srsly?

  1. Words have more than one meaning. One of the accepted definitions of seminal actually means original. It is a very common usage of the word. A Google search for Doris Lessing and seminal shows that a lot people have referred to her work using the word seminal. This article from the Financial Times for instance also describes her work as seminal.

    I don’t see what the problem here is unless you are arguing that her work was not original and influential.


  2. I’m guilty of using the word “seminal” completely and totally inappropriately. I can’t help it… I use canonical examples when talking about religious studies and seminal papers when discussing fertility research. (Not that Doris Lessing wrote about fertility research…)


  3. I think I’d break down and buy a t.v. if I had known there was a character named “Pennsatucky” on a series, whatever else it was about. I first heard a variation of the term from a cousin on the back of a tractor he was trying to teach me to drive back in the last century, as an expression of geographical derision for the state that my parents had–for he thought some inexplicable reason–decided to move. Liked it then; like it now.


  4. A dictionary may fail as a source for understanding a word in some contexts. First, I don’t believe authors of literature want their work to be seminal. They want it to accepted as good or even great. Seminal works for scientists. If someone’s works is seminal, it’s very important work and the community knows that.

    Doris Lessing was a great writer.


  5. I remember in grad school joking about feminist works being ovarial and wanting a new word for seminars.

    While “seminar” and “seminal” have common usages, it’s well worth thinking about their etymological relationships with “semen” and recognizing that such usages incorporate sexism.

    So, yes, to me, “seminal” to talk about Lessing’s work seems to misrecognize why and how Lessing’s works are important.


  6. Yes. Is it truly accidental that “seminal” = innovative, foundational, etc.? Why not “fruitful?” “Fecund?”

    And yes: we need a new word for seminars, too! (Colloquia? Consciousness raising? That works for me.)


  7. Erm, “seminal” just means “seed” as in not merely new and original, but also leading to whole new things growing from it. Very appropriate for Lessing!

    The problem isn’t in “seminal.” The problem is in the Middle Ages or whenever the hell it was when doofi decided males had the only real role in reproduction and provided the seed, whereas females were just incubators. If you want to complain about a misapplied meaning, complain about “semen.”


  8. But our usages (seminar, seminal, semen) continue the medieval thinking. It’s too late to change the associations of “seminar” or “seminal” with “semen,” but we can change our usage so that we think about what associations our word choices have.

    I like Historiann’s suggestion of “fruitful” for describing Lessing’s contributions.


  9. Agreed. “Fruitful” would work much better given modern associations.

    It’s tangential to this post, but it’s something that bothers me: as soon as a word is associated with anything to do with sex, it’s lost to the rest of the language. Gay, seminal, queer, there are dozens of them. It doesn’t have to be that way. Bear means carry, withstand, large furry animal, and we can deal with those multiple meanings without any trouble. But sex? ZOMG! Off limits!

    Modern associations need their collective brains examined.


  10. Its kind of a Virginia Slims “You’ve come a long way baby” moment. Someone saying, “Look! Important feminist writer! Her work is seminal!” is not empowering or socially transformative. From what I understand, the point of feminism is to change things, not to be just another consumer or just another writer that can be neatly pigeonholed into existing market categories and power structures.

    The use of the word seminal in this context is a great example of thoughtlessness. As in none of the people concerned, the author of the announcement, the editor and the newsreader, took the time to think about whether their word choice was appropriate or effective given the subject of the article. I imagine if any of them had read anything by Doris Lessing, they wouldn’t have chosen that particular word.


  11. Pingback: From Pine View Farm » Blog's archive » Mixed-Up Metaphors

  12. I was just ranting to my graduate class last week about the word seminal (and the word naturally, as in “she was naturally inclined to X”) and that they should think about the implications of words before using them. Actually, I think I just said – “For the love of all that is good. Don’t use either!”


  13. I work in a for-profit, where the term “penetrating” is used to describe how we should expand our business into new markets. I swear I’m going to go off the next time it’s used in a public forum. But then again, the company’s run by an old-boys’ network. They just can’t help their ignorant selves.


  14. My absolute favorite is:
    “The National Park System is well endowed to commemorate Women’s contributions to American Society.” It is the very first line on the “Women’s History Sites (U.S. National Park Service)” Wikipedia page.

    I know I could change it… but I just can’t bring myself to do it. The irony is too awesome.


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