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Marriage Knot

Geoff Nunberg

"Fresh Air" commentary, May 28, 2008

A couple of months ago, the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary made some long-overdue revisions in the definitions for a bunch of gender-related words. Before then, the dictionary's definition of girlfriend in the meaning of "sweetheart" read "a man's favorite female companion," which would have precluded lesbians from having girlfriends in the romantic sense. And the old definition of love read, "That feeling of attachment which is based upon difference of sex. . . and which is the normal basis of marriage." So both words were given new definitions that would cover their use to refer to same-sex relationships.[1]

This is hardly a matter of rampant political correctness, or of giving the words a new meaning. It isn't as if the English language has ever ruled out talking about lesbians having girlfriends, much less prevented Shakespeare from describing a romantic attachment between two men with the word love. It's just that when the definitions were written, those sorts of relationships were officially invisible.

Those redefinitions came to mind as I was listening to the renewed debate about gay marriage. To a lot of people, that notion isn't simply a threat to God's plan or the social order, but an affront to English -- as one conservative columnist puts it, it's "a desecration of language." Do a Google search for web pages containing "same-sex marriage" and the like together with "oxymoron," and you turn up 125,000 hits, most of them posted by people who would tell you that the phrase "same-sex marriage" is as semantically anomalous as "female rooster."

Now it's true that most people with reservations about gay marriage aren't primarily motivated by their concern for the proprieties of English usage. But it's always useful to be able to frame your position on an issue as a defense of the "traditional definition" of a word. It's a way of folding your argument into the language itself, so that it doesn't require analysis -- it makes things as cut and dried as a dictionary entry.

Except that the "traditional definition" of a word isn't always that easy to pin down. In retrospect, features that seemed to be part of the essential meaning of a word can turn out to be merely the traces of the social attitudes that used to surround it. Until recently, the OED defined girl friday as "a resourceful young woman assistant (to a man)," which said a lot more about how people thought about office settings than what the phrase actually meant.

In the case of marriage, though, dictionaries themselves aren't necessarily going to be helpful in sorting things out. Lexicographers know that nobody's going to go to the mattresses to defend the traditional definitions of love and girlfriend.
But when it comes to marriage they start looking nervously over both their shoulders. People only look the word up to make a point, and when they don't find what they want they're liable to organize a letter-writing campaign or punch in an angry blog entry.

Some dictionaries try to placate both sides with a solomonic solution. Both Merriam Webster's and the Oxford American Dictionary
have retained their old definition of marriage as a union between people of the opposite sex and added an additional definition that applies specifically to same-sex unions that resemble traditional marriages.[2] That recalls the editorial practice the Washington Times  followed until recently, where it always put  "marriage" in quotes when referring to homosexuals.

But there's no way to split the baby here. The opponents of gay marriage won't consent to any official use of the m-word. And its advocates won't accept an asterisk on the word -- what point would the whole movement have if marriage couldn't have a single meaning that applies to everyone?
That's how the word is treated in the Encarta dictionary, which gives it a single definition that makes no reference to gender, as "a legally recognized relationship… between two people who intend to live together as sexual and domestic partners."

Like the OED's redefinitions of love and girlfriend, that's not supposed to offer a new meaning for the word, but an effort to get at what's really basic to the old one, once you strip away what Edmund Burke called the "ancient prejudices and prescriptions" that traditions are always entangled in.

Of course people can argue that the definition of marriage as a heterosexual union has sacramental roots that make the word very different from girlfriend or love. That debate will continue for a long time, or at least until the institution of gay marriage becomes so ordinary and unremarkable that people no longer feel the need to distinguish it with the prefix gay in the first place.

Though actually, the discussion would benefit if everybody could agree to lose the word traditional, which has probably worked as mischief over the last half-century as any other word in American public life. It's a word people use to muddle the past, so it doesn't have to explain or justify itself. In fact when people defend something as traditional, what they have in mind almost always turns out to be a purely modern concoction, like the pastiche of Chippendale, French provincial, Queen Anne and colonial that goes by the name of "traditional" on an Ethan Allen bedroom set. "Traditional marriage" brings to mind the same sort of thing: a hodge-podge of customs, laws, and restrictions, secular and religious, jumbling places and periods willy-nilly. In either case, you can't tell what's the frame and what's the filigree.


1. The editors made analogous changes in the definition for one sense of partner; which used to read: "One associated in marriage, a spouse; more frequently applied to the wife." Now it reads "a member of a couple who live together or are habitual companions." But the relevant sense of couple is still defined as "A man and woman united by love or marriage," even though the mainstream press has been referring to "gay couples" and "homosexual couples" since the 1960's -- and here as well, there's no reason to suppose that the word was ever semantically restricted to heterosexual pairs. Return

2.Merriam's defintion reads:

1 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 <same-sex marriage>. Return

Copyright © 2008 by Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.