Marriage: What’s in a Definition?
With marriage being redefined (or expanded) to include same-sex couples, linguistic activists are looking at the way various dictionaries define "marriage." While it may seem an arcane and effete place to start an argument, as Jourbet noted, what the standard bearers of language decide is the definition of a word has a bearing on the real world.
Every philosopher from Plato onward recognized that placing a precise meaning on a word is as important as the thing it is defining. With that in mind, pay attention to the way the recognized authorities are playing catch up with political reality.
Webster’s Dictionary defines marriage as "a (1) : the state of being united to a person of the opposite sex as husband or wife in a consensual and contractual relationship recognized by law (2) : the state of being united to a person of the same sex in a relationship like that of a traditional marriage
Although gay marriage isn’t included in the first definition of the word, Webster, one of the country’s most popular dictionaries, uses gender-neutral words to describe "marriage" and added same-sex marriage to its definition back in 2003.
Webster isn’t the only dictionary to recognize gay marriage in a definition. A 2009 Slate article points out that the American Heritage Dictionary, Black’s Law Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary have all added same-sex unions to their definitions. American Heritage was the first of the dictionaries to recognize marriage equality in 2000 when it updated its definition of "marriage" to: "A union between two persons having the customary but usually not the legal force of marriage: a same-sex marriage."
Four years later Black’s added "same-sex marriage" to its "marriage" definition, stating, "same-sex couples have successfully challenged the laws against same-sex marriage" in several states.
Slate also notes that the grandfather of all dictionaries, the Oxford English Dictionary, has included the phrase "long-term relationships between partners of the same sex" in its definition of "marriage" since 2000 as well. Oxford’s website notes that it updates its online dictionary "every quarter."
Not all dictionaries are treating their definition of "marriage" the same way, however. Gay rights supporters are outraged at Dictionary.com’s definition of the word.
The website says "marriage" is, "1. a. the social institution under which a man and woman establish their decision to live as husband and wife by legal commitments, religious ceremonies, etc." There are four more definitions but none address same-sex couples specifically. It does, however, use gender-neutral words ("two people") in its third and fourth definitions.
Mike Raven, a MFA student in creative writing from New Hampshire, is working to change the website’s definition. The student has created a petition on Change.org in order to have Dictionary.com include gay and lesbian couples in its definition for "marriage."
"I started this campaign, in part, from my love and fascination with words; and most of all, from the love I have for my twin sister Ashley, who is gay," Raven said in a statement. "I decided that if this whole argument comes down to an intangible definition, then it’s time for that definition to be corrected."
Currently, more than 101,000 people have signed the petition to support Raven’s cause.
"I define marriage as two consenting adults, entering into a life-long relationship as husband and wife, husband and husband, or wife and wife, based on love and commitment," Raven wrote in his petition.
"If this whole argument comes down to an intangible definition of marriage, then it’s time for that definition to change," he added. "While we cannot change the oppressive and discriminatory way that some religions continue to define marriage, we can go to an even better place. I believe it is time to correct the definition of Marriage at our sources for what words mean: dictionaries."
Dictionary.com, which receives about 50 million visitors a month, sent a statement to the Huffington Post about the issue and made no indication that it would change its definition of "marriage."
"We recognize that the word marriage is at the center of nationwide debate. As we continually seek the best way to convey how all words are being used in multiple contexts, we appreciate all suggestions regarding the description of the current semantic status of ’marriage,’ and constantly strive to marry the multifaceted strands in a way that is as comprehensive as possible," the statement said.
"As the first dictionary born digital, we are able to closely monitor and continually evolve word definitions to reflect their most current meanings. We refer you to our definition page for the word marriage, including detailed discussion of its origins, the many ways it is used and various definitions."
Dictionary.com isn’t the only online dictionary that does not include same-sex couples in its definition of "marriage".
Google says marriage is, "The formal union of a man and a woman, typically recognized by law, by which they become husband and wife." The Internet’s largest search engine’s second definition says, "A relationship between married people or the period for which it lasts."
More shockingly, Apple, one of the most liberal and gay-friendly companies in the world, says "marriage" is defined as "the formal union of a man and a woman, typically recognized by law, by which they become husband and wife: a happy marriage | the children from his first marriage." It has two more definitions, which says marriage is, "the state of being married: women want equality in marriage," and "informal a similar union between partners of the same sex: gay marriage."
Apparently to Apple same-sex marriage is informal.
Polls show that more and more Americans are supporting marriage equality and with President Obama’s recent endorsement for gay marriage, it seems inevitable that same-sex couples will be able to tie the knot in every state. Although some dictionaries currently refuse to acknowledge same-sex marriage, it doesn’t take away the legal right that two men or two women can marry in Massachusetts, New York, D.C. and five other states - it makes the dictionary feel out-of-date.