18th 2013
Dead feminist Nobelist novelist’s work described as “seminal.” Srsly?

Posted under: art, book reviews, captivity, European history, Gender, women's history

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

  1. anna on 18 Nov 2013 at 11:26 am #

    Ewww. How about saying “groundbreaking” next time.

  2. J. Otto Pohl on 18 Nov 2013 at 1:50 pm #

    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.

  3. Nicoleandmaggie on 18 Nov 2013 at 3:39 pm #

    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…)

  4. Indyanna on 18 Nov 2013 at 3:42 pm #

    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.

  5. koshembos on 18 Nov 2013 at 5:52 pm #

    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.

  6. undine on 18 Nov 2013 at 7:59 pm #

    I just think “seed” and move on. Either I am the Margaret Dumont of high-minded academia or destruxit me Latine.

  7. Bardiac on 18 Nov 2013 at 8:17 pm #

    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.

  8. Historiann on 18 Nov 2013 at 8:43 pm #

    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.)

  9. quixote on 18 Nov 2013 at 9:17 pm #

    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.”

  10. Bardiac on 19 Nov 2013 at 7:01 am #

    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.

  11. quixote on 19 Nov 2013 at 8:08 am #

    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.

  12. Shelley on 19 Nov 2013 at 9:04 am #

    As a friend of mine once said, save your silver bullets.

  13. Matt_L on 19 Nov 2013 at 12:42 pm #

    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.

  14. Nicoleandmaggie on 19 Nov 2013 at 12:43 pm #

    I use the word “fecund” too, but when discussing the entire body of fertility-related research (which, indeed, has been fecund recently), not just one particular paper.

  15. From Pine View Farm » Blog's archive » Mixed-Up Metaphors on 19 Nov 2013 at 12:44 pm #

    […] This is what happen when you don’t think about what words mean. […]

  16. ProfSweddy on 19 Nov 2013 at 5:50 pm #

    I like consciousness raising instead of seminar!

  17. Liz2 on 19 Nov 2013 at 8:05 pm #

    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!”

  18. Nick on 20 Nov 2013 at 7:33 am #

    Nancy and I loved “Orange,” too! We binge-watched it this summer. Don’t you just want Mendez’s head on a pike? Can’t wait for Season 2! Here’s a crappy preview:

  19. Historiann on 20 Nov 2013 at 8:10 am #

    Mendez is a creep, but he’s not as big of a creep as Healey. Mendez is small-time compared to his creepiness.

  20. Liz on 27 Nov 2013 at 10:18 am #

    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.

  21. Historiann on 27 Nov 2013 at 11:42 am #

    That is SUCH a great (by which I mean icky) example of what we’re talking about here. I don’t think you can stop finding examples of language like this once you get started.

  22. Digger on 08 Dec 2013 at 9:35 am #

    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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