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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.
    – SeanC
    Oct 9, 2012 at 15:56
  • I'd be surprised if anyone was confused, but they might think you are being pretentious.
    – Case
    Oct 9, 2012 at 21:41
  • @SeanCheshire Thanks, a lot of gold on that Dilbert page!
    – Eyvind
    Oct 10, 2012 at 10:14
  • @SeanC This page from the Daily Telegraph of 3 Sep 2000 will be of interest. Had the News of the World a Murdoch Sunday newspaper, now closed as a result of the phone-tapping scandal, provided a glossary of words, it is said, this attack on a paediatrician might not have happened.
    – WS2
    Sep 10, 2017 at 9:28

8 Answers 8

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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, 2012 at 12:10
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    @GEdgar: Should've been an ooinar.
    – user21497
    Oct 9, 2012 at 12:51
  • @BillFranke: Oo-er! Oct 9, 2012 at 14:17
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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.

6

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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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, 2012 at 15:58
  • I sometimes wonder when someone will object to calling our small class sessions by the term "seminar".
    – GEdgar
    May 6, 2017 at 18:43
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Yes, ≪seminal≫ is an academese of Anglosphere academe; the term ≪seminal work≫ has a very specific meaning and is often used in accordance with that meaning.

The layman interpretation is roughly:

Some papers are of central importance to a research topic, often because they report a major breakthrough, insight, or a new and generative synthesis of ideas. This kind of paper may describe a study that changes our understanding of a topic, or describes and illustrates a new and highly useful research method. These kinds of articles are often referred to as seminal or classic papers. They form the "canon" of works important to a topic. When writing a literature review on a topic, it is essential that you include any relevant seminal or classic papers.

..and the less layman interpretation is roughly:

"The model begins with a new theory published in a research paper. If the scholarly community comes to accept the validity of the new theory this paper is considered a seminal paper. This seminal paper influences the scholarly community’s thinking and ultimately, the body of knowledge. The seminal paper stimulates the writing of other scholarly papers. Last, the novel thinking, expressed in the seminal paper and subsequent scholarly papers, is organized into new patterns of thinking which can be recorded in subject heading schemes and then applied to the subject indexing of newly published scholarly papers". [§]

Such definition is and has been consistently used throughout books/encyclopedias [eg 1 §, 2 §, 3 §, 4 §, 5 §, 6 §, 7 §, 8 §, 9 §, 10 §], forums [eg], news [eg 10 §, 11 §], and other text [cf].

Thus depending on context, the reader will likely interpret the adjective <seminal> according to the specific definition above. <Seminal> does not merely mean <great>.

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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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  • Why is this downvoted?
    – Pacerier
    May 23, 2016 at 3:46
  • @Pacerier Apparently because it disappoints by taking the mischief out of the question.
    – Kris
    May 24, 2016 at 9:07

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