What the Definition of Marriage Tells Us About Marriage Equality

Right now, people around the country and beyond are heading to their computers and looking up the word marriage. What does the definition of the word tell us about the current state of our view of marriage equality?

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As we watch and listen and wait and think and hope with regard to all that's transpiring at the Supreme Court hearing on California's ban on gay marriage, people around the country and beyond are heading to their computers and looking up the word marriage. Merriam-Webster lexicographer Kory Stamper tells me that the word frequently appears in the top-30 lookups on the site, as "people have enduring questions about what marriage is." Today, though, it's probably no surprise that the word is "far and way the top lookup."

If you go to M-W.com to look up the word marriage, this is the first definition that you'll find:

That second sense in the first definition was added to the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition, in 2003 (a change that "ignited a firestorm of criticism from the right," wrote linguist Ben Zimmer in a piece for the Boston Globe in 2012). It was then added to M-W.com's online dictionary in January of 2004. Stamper explains, "It was entered into our dictionary because we had collected enough sustained, written evidence of its use in a variety of places--newspapers, magazines, books, journals, online sources, and so on--to merit entry. This new sense of marriage has appeared frequently and consistently throughout a broad spectrum of carefully edited publications, and it's often used in phrases such as 'same-sex marriage' and 'gay marriage' by proponents and opponents alike."

Similar entries can be found at Dictionary.com, OED.com, the American Heritage Dictionary online, and others, and Stamper adds, in fact, that this use of the word isn't all that new: "Our earliest citation for it currently dates to 1921, and we may find an earlier use yet."

A dictionary is not in the business of defining what things should be, but instead, lexicographers research, write, and update entries based on how words are being used in the active and evolving English language. The inclusion of the second subsense of marriage "was a simple matter of providing our readers with accurate information about all of the word's current uses," says Stamper. "Unfortunately, dictionaries will not explain the essential nature of a thing, or tell you what something is; instead, they tell you how the word for that thing is used in a variety of contexts. We can't possibly answer questions like 'What is truth?' or 'What is beauty?', but we can answer questions like 'How is the word truth used?' or 'What does the word beauty mean in this context?' It sounds like hair-splitting to most people, but it's an important distinction to make and hold in mind before we begin talking more about the newer meaning of marriage."

In the past couple of days, I've seen a number of people tweeting and saying—pop singer Pink, for instance—that we shouldn't call it gay marriage, it's just marriage, which seems a valuable thing to address, too (note: there's no individual gay marriage entry on M-W.com because, as Stamper explains, "the phrase 'gay marriage' isn't fixed enough as an unalterable idiom to merit its own"). If we truly are to have marriage equality, we need not distinguish the one case from the next, the argument goes. I asked Stamper how this relates to those two definitions above. "People do ask why we have a separate sense that covers gay marriage [included in the marriage entry]; why don't we just collapse them down into one sense?" she says. "The answer is usage. According to the collected evidence we have at hand, in many instances the word marriage is used to refer to an arrangement exclusively involving a man and a woman, and in other instances, the word is used to refer to an arrangement involving members of the same sex." While the word does have those two distinct meanings currently, there's growing evidence of what she calls a "blended" meaning--"one that doesn't mention the sex of the participants at all."

Someday, "if and when marriage comes to be generally understood by speakers and writers of English as describing a union of two people regardless of their sex, then we'll absolutely revise the definition to show that," she adds. "Dictionary definitions are never written in stone." Listen up, people who think we must only go by what we've done in the past to determine what we will do in the future.

But as dictionaries serve to reflect and not to predict (or offer their own moral judgments), they also demonstrate changes in cultural norms and acceptances. There's a ways to go, clearly, but defining marriage in this fashion means it's not a word confined to use by only a certain group of people, but, in fact, that anyone who wants to use it can, and does. As Zimmer wrote in June of 2012, "If DOMA reaches the US Supreme Court soon, as seems increasingly likely, and the justices consult the leading English dictionaries, they will find that lexicographers already have changed their tune about the scope of marriage." Words are defined by the people who use them—the lexicographers listen and watch and record—and as we move toward marriage equality and a truly blended definition of word, soon enough, the law must follow.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.