(The following is adapted from a post on my personal blog, written October 13, 2013.)
Moby-Dick, Chapter 94, “A Squeeze of the Hand” is a source of some literary contention.
While critics such as Robert K. Martin assert the obvious––that this scene of Ishmael finding bliss squeezing handfuls of sperm in the company of his fellow sailors is at the very least some kind of metaphor for mutual masturbation among men, if not a covert way of implying such a scene actually took place upon the Pequod––others prefer to pretend this interpretation takes the chapter out of context for the sake of juvenile humor. Indeed, some claim that “sperm” is one of those words that “just DO NOT mean today what they used to mean” and viewing the chapter as an endorsement of homosexual behavior is a mark of the uneducated or naïve.
Fun fact: the word “sperm” has meant the same thing for roughly 600 years now.
Don’t believe me? Let’s ask the dictionary!
noun, plural sperm, sperms for 2.
2. a male reproductive cell; spermatozoon.
1350–1400; Middle English sperme < Late Latin sperma < Greek spérma seed, equivalent to sper– (base of speírein to sow seeds) + –ma noun suffix of result
But wait! In the context of Moby-Dick, the word “sperm” is a shortening of “spermaceti”, a waxy substance found in the head of sperm whales. So clearly there is no sexual connotation whatsoev––
sperm whale (n.)
1830, shortening of spermaceti whale (so called because the waxy substance in its head was mistaken for sperm), from spermaceti (1471), from Medieval Latin sperma ceti “sperm of a whale,” from Latin sperma (see sperm) + cetus “large sea animal” (see Cetacea). The substance in olden times was credited with medicinal properties, as well as being used for candle oil.
Use … Sperma Cete ana with redd Wyne when ye wax old. [Sir George Ripley, “The Compound of Alchemy,” 1471]
(Etymology generously provided by etymonline.com. Bolding for emphasis courtesy moi.)
In short, sperm whales are called sperm whales because they contain spermaceti. Spermaceti is called spermaceti because it looks like sperm. The word “sperm” has carried the same meaning since the 1400s. Herman Melville may not have been a flaming homosexual, but Ishmael most certainly is.
Now can we all finally come together and admit that sperm is sperm?