The New York Times In America

February 22, 2004

Wed the People? (In Order to Form a More Perfect Gay Union)


IN an interview last December, Howard Dean explained that Vermont had chosen to allow same-sex couples to enter into "civil unions" rather than "marriages" because "marriage is very important to a lot of people who are pretty religious." To the columnist George Will, Mr. Dean's remark reduced the debate over the public meaning of marriage to "merely a semantic quibble."

But the dispute over marriage is as purely semantic as they come, particularly in a society as obsessed with words as ours is. We may like to pretend that we're a people with no patience for quibbling over "mere semantics," but not even the medievals of Pierre Abélard's age spent as much time as we do chewing over the nuances of names, symbols, labels and titles. Hence our predilection for formulas like "the a-word," "the b-word" and so on, as every issue is reduced to a single controversial expression, from abortion, AIDS and amnesty to Zionism and zoning.

And what people have taken to calling "the m-word" is more charged than most, because it's what linguists and philosophers call a performative notion. Like christening a boat or adjourning a meeting, marriage is a state of affairs that can be brought about merely by pronouncing certain words in an appropriate setting -words that have traditionally conferred not just solemn rights and obligations, but permission to canoodle, too.

But our anti-semantic postures can make it hard to come clean about our semantic preoccupations. That may be why opponents of gay marriage often appeal to slippery slope arguments, as if altering the meaning of the m-word will threaten "the institution of marriage" itself. The phrase doesn't simply evoke other bulwarks of the social order that we describe as institutions, like the free press and Dick Clark. It also blurs the distinction between the concept of marriage and its actuality. For opponents, broadening the definition of marriage is like opening an exclusive hotel to package tours, with the risk that the traditional clientele will no longer feel like checking in. It amounts to "taking the rights and protection of marriage and handing them out willy-nilly," as Representative J. D. Hayworth, Republican of Arizona, recently put it.

Listening to arguments like those can make one sympathize with legislators in Massachusetts and elsewhere who are trying to find a way to confer the rights without the title, even if "civil union" ultimately comes down to marriage with an asterisk. Whether their reservations are personal or political, they're not pretending that anything more than "mere semantics" is at stake.

In the end, though, the meaning of "marriage" will be determined by the way ordinary people use the word, not the edicts of courts or legislatures. And popular usage can be surprisingly adaptable - as attitudes evolve, it has few qualms about modifying the traditional definitions of words, however sanctified they seem at the time.

Take "couple." The latest edition of the Oxford English Dictionary still defines the word as "A man and woman united by love or marriage." The phrase "homosexual couple" first appeared in The New York Times in 1967. "Gay couple" made its Times debut in the following year in a well-intended Sunday Magazine article called "Civil Rights and the Homosexual." (The writer urged tolerance of homosexuality "either as an emotional disorder or an unalterable sexual deviation," but stressed that "scholars of homosexual culture cannot foresee any equivalent of marriage for homosexuals.") Yet just a few decades later, reservations about referring to "gay couples" seem as quaint as that phrase "the homosexual," which reduced a group to a uniform anthropological type.

The meaning of "family" has been changing, too. The third edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, published in 1992, defines the word as "a fundamental social group typically consisting of a man and woman and their offspring." But when the fourth edition came out in 2000, the last part of the definition was altered to "typically consisting of one or two parents and their children." The new wording is descriptive, not prescriptive. Families today don't strike us as "atypical" simply because they don't conform to the domestic configuration of "Father Knows Best."

The definition of "marriage" is becoming more inclusive, as well. An edition of the Oxford English Dictionary appearing next year will define the word as "the legal or religious union of two people."

True, the resistance runs deeper here than with other words. But usage rarely stands on principle. As more same-sex couples are married in religious or civil ceremonies, sentences like "Jane and June have been married for 15 years" are bound to become part of the linguistic wallpaper of the media in the same way "gay couple" has. Whom God has joined together, People magazine is not about to put asunder.

At that point, we can talk about a genuine change in semantics - though there certainly won't be anything "mere" about it. And sooner or later, the legal forms will inevitably follow suit. As William Hazlitt wrote in 1830: "Laws and institutions are positive things" - that is, formally established arrangements - "while opinions and sentiments are variable; and it is in conforming the stubbornness and perversity of the former to the freedom and boldness of the latter, that the harmony and beauty of the social order consists."

Geoffrey Nunberg, a Stanford linguist, is heard on NPR's "Fresh Air" and is the author of the forthcoming book "Going Nucular" (Perseus, 2004).

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