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I am writing an academic text, and I want to describe an important book as "seminal", since it has made a profound impact on the field. However, the first entry on the dictionary.com page is "pertaining to, containing, or consisting of semen". Entry number 4, "highly original and influencing the development of future events" is the meaning I want to convey. Should I be worried about people confusing the two?

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Think about your audience. I would direct you to item 13 on this page, and decide if they could make the same mix up. –  Sean Cheshire Oct 9 '12 at 15:56
    
I'd be surprised if anyone was confused, but they might think you are being pretentious. –  Case Oct 9 '12 at 21:41
    
@SeanCheshire Thanks, a lot of gold on that Dilbert page! –  Eyvind Oct 10 '12 at 10:14
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7 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

The word has two meanings. Both have to do with generation, one of life and the other of ideas or artifacts. No serious reader will confuse what you mean if you call a specific book a seminal work. Only a grammar school or junior high school boy would think of Portnoy and imagine that he'd thought the book was a chunk of liver.

From MW3: Main Entry: seminal

Function: adjective

Etymology:Middle English, from Middle French, from Latin seminalis, from semin-, semen seed + -alis -al --- more at SEMEN

1 : of, derived from, containing, or consisting of seed or semen [seminal vessels]

2 : having the character of an originative power, principle, or source : containing or contributing the seeds of later development : GERMINATIVE, ORIGINAL [existentialism ... has at least acted as a seminal force, inducing other and perhaps contradictory ideas— Philip Toynbee] [fruitful dialectical interplay between literary history and literary criticism, the seminal ideas of one discipline influencing the growth of the other— C.I.Glicksberg] [one of the great seminal minds of our age, ... a thinker whose insights have become a part of our cultural heritage— Sidney Ratner]

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Well, perhaps some strident feminist may take offense. But probably not. Wasn't there some university that was doing "herstory" instead of "history", but they still carried out their discussion in a "seminar"? –  GEdgar Oct 9 '12 at 12:10
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@GEdgar: Should've been an ooinar. –  user21497 Oct 9 '12 at 12:51
    
@BillFranke: Oo-er! –  Nate Eldredge Oct 9 '12 at 14:17
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There is about zero chance of genuine confusion, but depending on the subject and context the allusion or image may be present in the minds of some readers. You have to decide for yourself whether this is liable to be a significant risk with your target audience and whether the worst case outcome of people noting the 'shadow meaning' is liable to be unnacceptable.

eg If the target audience is liable to be loud and bawdy (unlikely from what you say) or given to crudity, obscurely creative sexual jest etc - as is definitely the case in some cases, then I'd avoid the usage.

Similarly, if the subject area was related to reproductive health, women's affairs or anything where sex played a legitimate or probable role then I'g find some other word to use.

One risk is that your audience are well bahevaed mature people with clean minds and strength as the strength of ten BUT that a follow on speaker or an introducer decides to make a joke based on your material. Such things happen n occasion.

Again , you are going to need to assess the risk and likely consequences.

Or, look through : Ground breaking, earth shattering, revolutionary, innovative, leading edge, phenomenal, early innovator, industry leader, break-through, unprecedented, unique, ...

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In the context of an academic paper, I think you'll be safe. The word should be readily properly understood by your audience, as groundbreaking papers and research are often labeled as seminal works. No one will be "confused."

For what it's worth, NOAD lists as its first meaning:

seminal (adj):
1) (of a work, event, moment, or figure) strongly influencing later developments

and lists the other meaning as a secondary meaning.

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If it's an academic text, your readers will be familiar with the meaning that you intend. There should be no risk of confusion.

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Although there is no risk of confusing your readers, it is worth noting that there is a risk that some of your readers will find the language sexist. Personally, I do not use "seminal" in this sense in academic writing for precisely this reason. For example, the British Sociological Association suggests as "more precise non-sexist alternatives" "classical" or "formative."

Certainly the question of whether using "seminal" this way (or "chairman" or "old master")is sexist is something that people disagree on, however there should be no disagreement that some readers will read it as sexist language. So if that's a situation you want to avoid, then you should avoid that language.

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My first reaction to the word seminal being conceived as sexist language was, "Oh, boy..." but then I realized, that's probably sexist language, too. –  J.R. Oct 9 '12 at 15:58
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One of my professors from a Christian based college used the term "seminal" in one of our assignment posts. I've used it in a paper referring to my research paper has seminal articles. No troubles found. I think that, as was mentioned earlier in the post, no one of academic prowess would think any different.

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Except in the context of medicine, anatomy, physiology, morphology and related sciences, the word seminal denotes only 'strongly influencing later developments' and nothing else.

You would be constrained to replace the word with a suitable synonym only where the context is as above.

In extremely informal writing, we follow the word with "(don't get ideas!)".

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