A Few Words on Sperm

(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!

sperm /spɜrm/

noun, plural sperm, sperms for 2.
1. semen.
2. a male reproductive cell; spermatozoon.

Origin:
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]

…Oh.

(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?

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Wuthering Rants, chapter 15

Previously on Wuthering Heights

  • Nelly visited Isabella.
  • Heathcliff continued to be an abusive douchebag.
  • Nelly returned to Thrushcross Grange with a letter from Heathcliff to Catherine.
  • That’ll go well.

…and now, the thrilling continuation!

Continue reading

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Wuthering Rants: The Story Thus Far

Spoiler alert: I hate this book.

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Wuthering Rants, chapter 14

Previously on Wuthering Heights

  • Catherine “recovered” from her brain fever.
  • Nelly read a 3,500-word letter aloud to Lockwood.
  • Isabella told Nelly all about her married life with Heathcliff. Spoiler alert: it sucks.

…and now, the thrilling continuation!

Continue reading

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Wuthering Rants, chapter 13

Previously on Wuthering Heights

  • Catherine literally tantrum’d herself into actual sickness.
  • Edgar blamed Nelly for everything.
  • Isabella eloped with Heathcliff.

…and now, the thrilling continuation!

Continue reading

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Wuthering Rants, chapter 12

Previously on Wuthering Heights

  • Heathcliff kissed Isabella.
  • Heathcliff and Catherine fought.
  • Edgar punched Heathcliff in the throat.
  • Catherine faked a seizure and went on a hunger strike.
  • Nelly continued to be MVP.

…and now, the thrilling continuation!

Continue reading

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Wuthering Rants, chapter 11

Previously on Wuthering Heights

  • Heathcliff returned!
  • Catherine fawned on him.
  • Edgar Linton experienced incredibly justified jealousy.
  • Isabella caught a crush.
  • Heathcliff plotted to destroy them all.

…and now, the thrilling continuation!

Continue reading

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Wuthering Rants, chapter 10

Previously on Wuthering Heights

  • Hindley was a literal actual monster.
  • Catherine was Heathcliff.
  • Wait what.
  • Catherine waited for Heathcliff all night in the rain but he never showed up so she married Edgar Linton instead.
  • Nelly Dean deserved better.

…and now, the thrilling continuation!

Continue reading

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Wuthering Rants, chapter 9

Previously on Wuthering Heights

  • Catherine couldn’t choose between her boyfriends.
  • The cycle of abuse ran rampant throughout Wuthering Heights.
  • Lockwood may be gay for Edgar Linton.

…and now, the thrilling continuation!

Continue reading

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Wuthering Rants, chapter 8

Previously on Wuthering Heights

  • Catherine returned to Wuthering Heights.
  • Heathcliff served Edgar Linton a most righteous tureen.
  • Nelly taunted the audience with the hope of an abridged retelling, only for Lockwood to dash such hopes upon the stones.

…and now, the thrilling continuation!

Continue reading

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Wuthering Rants, chapter 7

Previously on Wuthering Heights

  • Hindley came back and brought his secret wife with him.
  • Catherine and Heathcliff spied on Thrushcross Grange.
  • Catherine got bit by a dog and temporarily adopted by the Lintons.

…and now, the thrilling continuation!

Continue reading

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