Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Seedy

I like the word seminal. It derives from the Latin word for seed, and it suggests things that have the capacity to generate. There are two main types of plant propagation: clonal (via cuttings, for instance, where the new plant is genetically identical to the parent) and by seed, where the new plant is similar to, but will slightly vary from, its parent or parents. It's this generation of new things that are similar to, yet different from, their ancestor (and given time and many generations, potentially very different from their ancestor) that makes reproduction by seed so exciting, and that in turn makes the word "seminal" so apt for descriptions of cultural phenomena that engender new, different, but related cultural phenomena.

The Latin word for seed from which seminal derives is semen. It's the same word we use for male animals' sex cells, and for this reason, there's been a kind of quailing at using the word "seminal" in public, as if we're reinscribing the illegitimate authority of male sexuality or the notion that men are more culturally generative than women. That is perhaps what we are doing, if when we hear the word semen in seminal, we think only of the sex cells that issue from testicles.

But rather than losing the beautiful metaphor embedded in seminal, a metaphor that suggests that words and stories scatter seeds that germinate into new and different words and stories, perhaps we should interrogate our use of the word semen (seed) to describe male sex cells.

A seed is what comes about when a plant's ovum and pollen fertilise each other. It already contains all the genetic material necessary to produce a new organism. A seed is necessarily already fertilised. Animal semen, on the other hand, is not sufficient to produce a new organism. If we draw an analogy between animal and plant reproductive elements (as we already do with the word semen), then the male sex cell would be better called pollen, and the fertilised ovum could be called the semen.

I guess this ain't going to happen, so in the meantime, perhaps we might take to calling our generative texts plain old seedy.

13 comments:

The Elephant's Child said...

Oh how I have missed your witty and erudite take on the world.

Alexis, Baron von Harlot said...

Oh, thank you, you kind person, you. I've missed blogging too, but have had so much work stuff doing (and still do), I haven't felt like I'm allowed. (As in: if you have time to write about semen on the internet, surely you should be doing more of that stuff that you should be doing more of.) One of these days I'll resume full internetian function.

TimT said...

[Insert joke about sailors here]

Because, you know, it's too late to be formulating coherent puns and all. All right, because I'm too lazy.

TimT said...

Speaking of pollen, you may be a little shocked by the affections being showered on me today by a gum tree on Spencer Street. It was being very forward in its intentions, let me tell you that.

Caz said...

Wow, an outbreak of posting! Where will it end? :-D

Seminal is such a lovely word, and I've never been aware of the origins - how glorious, and what a wonderful read.

OMG - right THIS SECOND - character on "offspring" said that he was happy to give his pollen ... (yes, donating semen!) ... umm, I guess the writers didn't read this post though.

Still, a nice little coinky-dink, and goes to show you might be wrong about the pollen thing - "ain't ever going to happen" - shite, it has already started!

Timmy - stop teasing the trees and fauna!

Anonymous Bosch said...

I presume the paramedics who had prematurely declared this blog dead are undergoing counseling and retraining? If they did that in a seminar, would it be ironic?

The Elephant's Child said...

Before you disappear back into the ether again I am dropping by to tell you that there is an award for you at my place, should you wish to collect it.

Friko said...

I found my way to your blog via the baby Elephant.Elephant and find a blog which likes words and likes to play with them.

Hello and greetings from a word lover living in the UK.

Alexis, Baron von Harlot said...

Caz, that is sewwwwwww excellent! Botanically correct references to bodily-fluid donation is JUST AROUND THE CORNER.

Alexis, Baron von Harlot said...

Bosch, an excellent point. Seminars (and seminaries) are my next target. (And why, having worked myself through a phase of referring to "seminal texts" as "ovarian texts" did I never bother to refer to "seminars" as "ovaries"?)

Alexis, Baron von Harlot said...

Elephant's Child - you are so kind. Thank you.

Alexis, Baron von Harlot said...

Friko: hello! There are lots of words to love over in the UK. Bill Bryson alleges that, in England, that roundy thing people drive around at the intersection of roads was originally referred to as a gyratory circus. Eventually, people sensibly gave way to that US export, "round-a-bout", but if I were living in the UK, I'd patriotically insist on using "gyratory circus".

Caz said...

"gyratory circus" ... ooh, I am SO saving that for future use. I don't know how or when, but damn it, I WILL find a way!