Male Semen is Redundant

Male sperm

You’ve seen the kind of thing: “Warehouse Razed to the Ground in Fire”, as if razing didn’t already mean the building was levelled. Worse, “Balloon Ascends Up into the Air”, ascending down is very difficult, simultaneously, at the same time, if not impossible; so too is descending up.

However, the award for the most redundantly tautological headline of the year has to go to Scientific American for Male Semen Makes HIV More Potent, that’s male semen as opposed to the female variety, is it? It’s an important discovery, nevertheless that a chemical constituent of semen affects the immune system facilitating viral infection.

Scientific American is probably not the first and original nor the ultimate and last publication to use this phrase though. DoctorNDTV ran a story with the title: Male semen loss concerns and risky sexual behaviour. Then there’s a research paper in the Journal of Avian Biology that discusses bacteria found in the “male semen” of red-winged blackbirds. Even the venerable and well-respected New Scientist recently published an item on insect courtship and egg laying. Apparently, the trigger for egg laying “is a small protein called sex peptide (SP) in the male’s semen.” Again, the word male, while perhaps making the sentence smoother, is totally redundant and not needed.

A search for the phrase “male semen” on PubMed produced not hits, although “male sperm” came up several times in various journals. So as not to appear sexist, I also did the equivalent searches for “female semen” and “female sperm” and quite surprisingly got several PubMed hits. One paper on mythology mentions how at one time in human history a godly being or other supernatural entity was thought to intervene in the merging of male and female semen to bring about conception. Not quite a modern biomedical reference point, then. The phrase “female sperm” gave absolutely no hits, unsurprisingly.

Maybe the clue as to why these various publications qualify the word semen lies in those papers discussing the mythology of reproduction. A quick Google shows that there are many references to religious and proto-religious texts that discuss both male and female semen as if they were both real. Perhaps by qualifying semen as male in modern writing, rather than simply discussing semen, there is some referential nod to humanity’s misconstrued understanding of reproduction. But, modern understanding of reproductive biology defines semen as a product of the male reproductive organs that acts as a transport medium for sperm, so, like I said, it’s redundant.

I asked linguistic guru Steven Pinker of Harvard University, whose book The Stuff of Thought I reviewed on Sciencebase recently, about this apparent paradox. Pinker told me that he suspects that, “the cause is not a nod to the ancients, but a desire to call the reader’s attention to the fact that it’s
the naturally occurring fluid that encourages the potency of the virus, not some externally administered product.

“Semen Makes HIV More Potent implies to me,” he said, “that adding semen increases the potency, rather than that the HIV exploits the properties of the semen it finds itself in.” He adds that it is peculiar that this may be the case. “Odd that the redundancy should do that,” he told me, “but somehow I think it does.”

Intriguingly, after I contacted Pinker, I saw that the journal Nature, as opposed to the popular science magazine, Scientific American, had covered the same story. In Nature, however, their piece was entitled – Semen boosts HIV transmission. So, for some reason they felt semen does not need a masculine qualification of any kind. The tautology of the phrase “male semen” may seem trivial, but it is an important issue.

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10 thoughts on “Male Semen is Redundant

  1. Fair comment re the “translation” of the technical to the non-technical. The problem is that the proverbial “they” never spells out the HIV, they just assume some intrinsic knowledge of the pathogen/disease, whereas it would be far more useful if they, as they are presumably taughtat the first principles stage of journalism/writing, were to spell out the abbreviations they use or provide an alternative definition aimed at the specific audience for a particular audience.

    I have a nice anecdote about this which I allude to in a forthcoming post but that I’ve actually mentioned previously regarding the word chirality as it pertains to molecules. Put simply, it means handed, and even extending the definition to its full technical descriptor is unnecessary as the word is simply derived from the Greek for hand and actually means nothing more and nothing less than handedness regardless of the efforts to make it seem more sophisticated (in the strict sense of the word) than it really is.

    db

  2. All joking aside, I think you’re looking at the phrase “HIV Virus” in only one of two possible ways, and that’s why it seems redundant. Part of the issue boils down to, who is your audience?

    It’s redundant if you think, “HIV? What part of HIV? Oh, the virus. Wait, HIV told me that already.” It’s less so if you first say, “OK. We’re talking about a virus. Which virus? Oh, the HIV virus.” Yes, redundant, but it’s used because “HI Virus” tis not a familiar phrase and “Oh, HIV” assumes a little bit more knowledge on the reader’s part. Can you assume that your readers’ know that the V in HIV means virus? Late night TV shows get quite a bit of mileage out of asking people on the street, “what does the N in PIN stand for?” and chortling as they say, “PIN as in PIN number? Uh, I don’t know.”

    It’s a fair bet that these days many people know of “HIV” as its own word (referring to some causative agent for AIDS) without knowing immediately off the top of their head that the V stands for virus. To those people, “HIV virus” is useful and informative.

    So I think the complaint should not necessarily be that writers don’t know their topic, but that they are deliberately being redundant because doing so is the best way to ensure that information makes it from the writer’s head to the readers’. If I were less lazy, I’d do more than just allude to studies about natural languages’ usefulness due to the high degree of redundancy. :)

    This is a problem that faces any kind of technical writing for a mass audience: translating from a highly precise jargon with low redundancy, to natural languages with low precision and high redundancy.

  3. Yes, I see your point now Philbo. You’re alluding to the fact that grammatical and syntactical pedantry is a dying art. Double entendres aside though, there is an important point to be made for those first coming to such subjects with little prior knowledge, the use of the word male suggests that there maybe is a female version of this fluid, which of course there isn’t. Similarly with the phrase HIV virus, confusion may arise among those who don’t understand the abbreviation that there is some other form of HIV that is non-viral, which again there isn’t.

    db

  4. I was just failing to see how this rises to the crisis proportions that the usage of “and I” in place of “and me” has reached.

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