Jun 13, 2012

Defining marriage: a call for dictionary reform

I don't usually have much time for LinkedIn as various correspondents have learned while waiting weeks for a response they might have received in minutes or hours had their message been sent by e-mail. But tonight a thread on the IAPTI group there caught my eye: a discussion regarding a petition to change the definition of marriage on dictionary.com, which is used by about 50 million people each month. The intent is to remove the gender bias of the definition and replace it with more inclusive language - "... two consenting adults, entering into a life-long relationship..." ('til divorce do them part, of course).

I wasn't really expecting something like this, but it makes sense. The top entry for "marriage" on dictionary.com currently defines marriage as being between one man and one woman. Quite aside from any controversies over same-sex marriage, I imagine there are quite a few Muslims in the world who might take issue with that, as well as a few renegade Mormons living in Mexico or hiding out in Colorado canyons. But more relevantly, an increasing number of countries around the world and states of the union from which I come have broadened their legal definition of marriage. That's marriage, not civil union.

I don't make the law, but I can read it, and I really don't see the dictionaries of the world as legitimate venues for continuing to promote a narrow definition which clearly is not valid in many parts of the world. Certainly, marriage may be between a man and a woman. But if the laws of Sweden say that Bjorn is married to Erik, who am I to say he is not? And it is rather presumptuous of a dictionary to tell us otherwise as well.

We don't need dictionaries to score political points for us. On any side. Let them instead attempt a more honest definition, and if they must qualify it by mentioning that legal definitions vary, so be it. None of that nonsense will change the reality of a commitment or lack thereof between two people. Or however many that may be in your jurisdiction.

Really, as language specialists, we should be more honest in our definitions and regardless of whether we are personally inclined toward same-sex marriage or not, we should oppose misguided right-wing attempts to deny a basic human right through lies of language. That reminds me all to much of Nineteen Eighty-Four and the horrible realities it represented.

Do we really want to stand on the side of people who would drag some poor fellow behind a truck while giving their best rebel yells? Or someone so daft he can't distinguish between the SS and its victims (see the IAPTI discussion)?

Dictionary reform? Yes, please. Then let's move on to fighting the bastards who would steal the salt from the peanuts they offer to pay their translators.


  1. As the legal definition of marriage changes, the dictionary definition should naturally change too. But we need a plurality of definitions, as with any other word, to reflect its different usages.

    I would just note that the proposed new definition: "... two consenting adults, entering into a life-long relationship..." is rather poor. After all, most countries allow children, not just adults, to marry and in some societies consent is not a requirement (in practice if not in law).

  2. Of course a plurality of definitions is called for - or at least a very broad one with qualifiers for culture and law. I don't find some of the practices which fall under the reasonable definition of "marriage" to be acceptable at all (child marriages, for example), but if we are to understand each other in our cross-cultural dialogues, we must come to terms with the fact that others use a word differently and will likely continue to do so. Let's save the real battles for the areas of law and social practice that we hope will shape the society we want to live in.

  3. Prejudices common to all Americans are hardly better grounds for constraining definitions than prejudices held by half of Americans. If Saudi Arabia says that Abdullah is married to Fatma and Aisha and Aminah, who is to say he's not?

    Forced marriage, as still practiced in parts of Asia, is marriage too. One could comfortably drop "consenting" from the definition. Don't forget Arab temporary marriages and Japanese cartoon character marriages.

    Marriage could be inclusively defined as "one person entering into or being entered into a relationship, implying legal and sexual privileges, with one or more persons, objects, or abstractions."


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