How Marriage Is Defined Around the World

With the Oxford Dictionary changing its definition of "marriage" to now include gay to mirror the brand-new gay marriage law in Britain, we decided to take a look at how other somewhat official state dictionaries define the word. 

This article is from the archive of our partner .

With the Oxford Dictionary changing its definition of "marriage" to now include the possibilities of same sex marriage (on the occasion of the brand-new gay marriage law in Britain), we decided to take a look at how other somewhat official state dictionaries* define the word. The first definition in the Oxford Dictionaries is "the formal union of a man and a woman" but it also now has "(in some jurisdictions) a union between partners of the same sex" tacked on to its listing. And the OED, in tiny letters below the traditional "condition of being a husband or wife" definition, has: "The term is now sometimes used with reference to long-term relationships between partners of the same sex (see gay marriage n. at gay adj., adv., and n. Special uses 2b)."

Not all countries, even ones that have legalized gay marriage, include same-sex unions in the official record book of language, however. Using the collective language skills of Atlantic Wire staff, we've compiled the official word on same-sex marriage in the map below. The pink countries have dictionaries that recognize gay-marriage and the grey ones don't. (This is also reference to how many languages the Wire staff knows, so if you know more, please let us know in comments.)

Spain, for example, legalized gay marriage back in 2005. The definition from the Real Acadamia Española, though, reads as follows:

1. m. Unión de hombre y mujer concertada mediante determinados ritos o formalidades legales.

2. m. En el catolicismo, sacramento por el cual el hombre y la mujer se ligan perpetuamente con arreglo a las prescripciones de la Iglesia.

3. m. coloq. Marido y mujer. En este cuarto vive un matrimonio.

4. m. P. Rico p. us. Plato que se hace de arroz blanco y habichuelas guisadas.

The first definition translates to "A union between a man and a woman with certain determined rituals or formal legalities." The second discusses the Catholic practice of getting married in a church, the third says "man and wife," and the fourth is a Spanish rice-dish. Italy, another Catholic country that does not recognizes these marriages, not-too-surprisingly excludes the idea from its Corriere dictionary.

The French dictionary Larousse got itself into a bit of trouble by including "solemn act between two same-sex or different-sex persons, who decide to establish a union" in its most recent edition. Anti-gay marriage advocates accused the dictionary of choosing sides. "It [the definition change] corresponds only to the factual record of the enlargement of the legal concept of marriage in a number of countries (six countries of the European Union) that now recognize marriage between persons of the same sex," argued Larousse. About a month later the country legislated in favor of same-sex marriages.

Even more curious, countries that don't formally and legally recognize same-sex unions, include the practice in the definition. Duden, the German dictionary, includes the phrase "gleichgeschlechtliche Lebensgemeinschaft," for same-sex unions in its defintion — even though the country hasn't legalized them. In America, where gay marriage is not completely legal, Merriam-Webster chose a "two-state solution:"

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. 

That doesn't really get at the definition of gay marriage, linguist Goeff Nunberg argued on NPR. Gays and lesbians aren't claiming the right to a recognized relationship "like traditional marriage." "They're talking about marriage without an asterisk, which is one reason why public opinion has shifted so rapidly in their favor," he said. Nor does it reflect the law.

Synergy with the law isn't exactly the point, notes Peter Sokolowski the Editor at Large at Merriam-Webster. "It's important to note that we're not writing dictionary definitions to reflect the law; we write definitions to reflect the language," he told The Atlantic Wire.

*Not all countries have official dictionaries attached to official government run branches, like the Real Acadamia Española in Spain. For the countries that don't have state-run dictionary, we used the most legitimate language source on language for that country, like Duden and Merriam-Webster in Germany and the United States, respectively. 

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