“Marriage” Changes. Don’t Believe Me? Look It Up.

On a flight last week, I sat next to a conservative Pentecostal pastor. We talked about demons and miraculous healings. And, probably to the consternation of those around us, argued vociferously about “marriage.” He was, like so many conservative evangelicals these days, in favor of civil unions for GLBT persons. But not “marriage.” No, “marriage” is something totally different, he told me.

Of course, he’s wrong. “Marriage” is nothing more than a word, composed of an assortment of letter — symbols with correlated vocal sounds. The definition of that word has changed since it was first used in English, and it changed over time in the many other languages that preceded English.

We invest words with meaning. That’s exactly what he’s hoping to do with the combination of words, “civil” and “union.” He wants that combo to mean something, and “marriage” to mean something else. That’s fine. But to suggest that the meaning that we’ve invested in the combination of letters m-a-r-r-i-a-g-e is almost shockingly naive.

Take Geoff Nunberg, the linguist for NPR’s Fresh Air. His most recent commentary is about how dictionaries are dealing with the on-the-ground changes to the word, “marriage”:

Lexicographers know they’re on the hot seat as they confront the changing uses of the word. When Merriam-Webster revised its definition a few years ago, it went with a two-state solution. It kept an older definition for “marriage” as “the state of being united to a person of the opposite sex,” but it added a second definition as “the state of being united to a person of the same sex in a relationship like that of traditional marriage.” Not surprisingly, that triggered headlines like “Webster’s Redefines Marriage” on conservative websites.

Merriam’s insisted that it had no political agenda; it was just describing the language as it was actually being used. But the entry is a train wreck, which is what’s apt to happen when you try to move forward while looking over both shoulders at the same time. That second definition doesn’t describe the way anybody uses the word. 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. And the cultural right isn’t about to sanction any use of the M-word for same-sex couples. The one thing both sides agree on is that whatever definition you give to “marriage,” there had better be just one of them.

He then writes about how the Encarta dictionary solved the problem differently, and more forthrightly. Nunberg concludes,

“Marriage” is more than a label to both sides. Words tend to pick up the flavors of the broth they’ve been steeping in: They’re surrounded by customs and prescriptions that seem to infuse their very meanings. When I hear somebody using a word in a new way, it can sound more like a usage error than a challenge to my unexamined notions. I had to do a little mental stutter-step the first couple of times I heard a gay friend talking about his husband. Until I realized, “Oh, I see — it’s just the guy in a marriage, the same as it ever was.”

But there has never been an age that was so quick or adept at making these adjustments. We spent the 1990s tacking “virtual” and “cyber” onto the names of what seemed like new kinds of things. Then we spent the next one taking the prefixes off again, as we realized that the new things were fundamentally the same as the old ones. “I have to get some e-money from my virtual bank so I can play cyber-poker” — that sounds so 1997. How long before “gay marriage” sounds equally quaint?

Don’t let someone tell you that marriage has just one definition that has never changed. And don’t let them tell you that “civil union” can replace “marriage” in the legal/governmental realm. Instead, fight for equality and be part of the evolving definition of the word.

  • Craig

    “Marriage” is nothing more than a word, but marriage is something else entirely. Also, I don’t understand this statement: “But to suggest that the meaning that we’ve invested in the combination of letters m-a-r-r-i-a-g-e is almost shockingly naive.” Is there a typo?

  • janet engeman

    One quibble from even the progressive religious side: Clergy should not be charged with enacting a legal union. If the two (legal and religious) were separated, and all that was needed was a legal contract, making a religious “blessing” separate and optional, then wouldn’t some of the problem go away? Clergy shouldn’t have to be agents of the law. If your faith does not support same-sex unions, then don’t bless them! That doesn’t mean members of that faith shouldn’t be able to be legally joined in “marrriage” or whatever you prefer to call it by a civil authority, and achieve the same rights and obligations as a couple married in a church, synagogue, mosque, temple, or elsewhere.

  • http://gravatar.com/jayseidler jay

    Of course the word marriage is not confined to the monogamous union of a man and woman. Anybody who thinks so is just simple minded. Polygamy is also marriage. So if one wants to clarify a specific type of “marriage” or committed sexual union, it is best if they use an existing term or create a new term that specifically defines such a union.

  • janet engeman
  • Tom

    I hope this “new” definition of marriage doesn’t change the rules of pinochle.

    • Kenton

      President Obama is already demanding the queen of a suit be considered a marriage in pinocle. Rick Perry will follow in about 6 months.

      Tony doesn’t believe in a slippery slope, but how long until a Jack is considered a marriage? What about a 10?…

  • http://jmsmith.org JM Smith

    Make sure the fight is consistent though. Marriages like the Stubings in Germany (brother and sister) or plural-marriages (such as on the recent episode of Wife Swap) should enjoy the benefits of society’s evolving as well.

    Equality means “equality”…and not just “equality for same-sex couples.”

  • eorourke1

    Agreed. Quoting myself:

    “May I just say, on the whole assertion of 2000 years of “one man one woman” primacy due to Judeo-Christian tradition, that it was the (pagan) Romans who outlawed polygamy in 212. Western Christians didn’t jump on the wagon officially until the 16thC Council of Trent. I need not comment on the marriage practices of native/aboriginal peoples until Europeans colonized, do I?

    What does have nearly 2000 years of tradition is the practice of concubinage: taking on a wife for procreation (who has inheritance rights) and concubines for sex and companionship (who do not). Draw the conclusions you like….”

  • Steve Dollinger

    Perhaps we wouldn’t be involved in all this quibbling if society had never bestowed special legal rights and privileges to married people. From probate issues, to health benefits, Social Security benefits, taxes, etc., all of these things are secular, and those opposed to what they term as non-traditional forms of marriage seem to want — if not outright — demand to receive all of the exclusive secular, government-sanctioned benefits based on their religious based relationship.

    It’s this hypocrisy of declaring marriage between a man and woman to be born from one’s religious beliefs, yet still seeking out all of the secular benefits that come along with the sectarian union, which ultimately led to our current state of evolved relational political debate.

    I hope that makes sense.

    • http://tonyj.net Tony Jones

      Totally agree. The government should not be incentivizing certain sexual arrangements.

      • Nick

        To say that a family unit is an “incentivized sexual relationship” is frankly ridiculous. All peoples in all societies have had property laws that were based upon family – not necessarily a sexual union because there have been many a famous adopted heir – but two men being “united” as a family has very little, if any historical precedent, unless one was an adopted son. So, how did families happen? Through heterosexual union and the production of children. If you wanted to pass on your property to anyone other than the state (be it the claims of an emperor, a Lord, the crown, or a secular democracy), you married and had children or adopted them.

        And in no time was homosexuality as it is practiced today recognized as a positive union that formed a family. Julius Caesar was taunted for his perceived homosexual leaning (see Catullus). The Ancient Greeks thought it was acceptable for a man to take a young boy – pederasty – but not what society today regards as homosexual marriage. Whatever one’s take on this issue, your argument that the government is “incetivizing” certain sexual relationships fails to account for the fact that a genetic family unit is a real thing, not merely a grouping of letters.

        On a lighter note, there were no spelling rules before the dictionary either. They codified them. Maybe we are giving that Webster far too much power.

        • Miles

          Your emphasis on the “genetic” family unit betrays your bias. Your voice is coming from a cultural majority: heterosexual couples with biological children. You speak as if this is the most legitimate family arrangement, and others are less meaningful (less “real”) since they do not possess a heterosexual/biological element. As an adoptive parent, I can tell you that the bond I have with my son is different, yet just as powerful (in its own way) as the bond I have with my daughter, who is a biological child. Your arguments come from that cultural majority, and they do not relate to or apply to my family. While we are different, we are also just as legitimate as the kind of family experience that the majority have.

          I believe that the same is true for same-sex couples. Their experience is different, but powerful in it’s own way. Just because the majority “precedent” is and has always been there, and has been excepted as the norm, does not mean that the minority experience is less meaningful. Just because the minority have been rejected and ridiculed does not mean they can’t have the same kind of relationship. It just means they are persecuted because they are different, and human beings fear anything outside of what they consider to be a normal experience.

          Maybe you are giving that “genetic family unit” far too much power.

  • Mark K.

    I think it’s really important to say that the Biblicist, Traditionalist camps, of marriage, also make massive Theoplogical presuppositional error…Their is no official marriage ceremony, or even a direct command from the Judeo-Christian God, for official of church or state, to even get involved. It’s all about ego, power, and control.

  • Mark K.

    Oops…really bad typist. Also, the early Christian church, did not perform any marriages, for centuries. Christ, or the Apostles, never performed a marriage, of record.

  • Andy

    “‘Marriage’ is nothing more than a word, composed of an assortment of letter — symbols with correlated vocal sounds.” Tony would be right of course, if marriage were something devised by humans, rather than something that God created and Jesus affirmed as being between a man and a woman.

  • Kien

    It strikes me that u’ve also explained the religious right’s concern about ”gay marriage’. As marriage is a term pregnant with meaning, changing the meaning is painful to those to whom it is meaningful. So while I personally am fine with gay marriage, I also understand the conservative opposition to this.

    Could homosexual couples not create their own word for a life long commitment and make that word stand for a degree of commitment that exceeds that of heterosexual couples?

    Might we be better of with rich plurality of words signifying life long commitment vs investing all our emotional capital into a single word?

    • http://gravatar.com/rollieb RollieB

      In our state (MN) there are at least 515 state laws that use the term “marriage’ within those laws. A new term requires 515 laws be changed to accommodate a term other than marriage. True equality is achieved when there is no unique distinction. Sorry, Kien, separate but equal doesn’t cut it.

      • http://gravatar.com/jayseidler jay

        In light of the changing definition of marriage, many if not most of these existing laws need to be rewritten anyway. It is better that laws are worded specific to avoid confusion. The law also restricts marriage between immediate family members. This is of course a violation of the principle of liberty and equality also. There is no reason why two loving brothers,or a father and son should be discriminated against. In any case, since half of the marriages are ending in divorce, it seems that marriage is not a very stable institution. If the government is involved at all, it should be involved in the protection and support of the children( the ones resulting of the union of gamete and gametes), but considering the divorce rate, the protection of the children seems to have little to do with the institution of marriage.

        • http://gravatar.com/rollieb RollieB

          Some other definitions of marriage:

          Marriage is a desirable form of state recognition, essential to inclusion in the economy and to personal dignity.

          Marriage is an institution beneficial to society and to the individuals who marry because of how it organizes care, property, and sexuality.

          Marriage for couples is sometimes portrayed as a way to clear up injustice or inequality by helping same-sex couples better access taxation rules, health care systems, inheritance and other property, and child custody.

          Then there are the critics of same-sex marriage who’s advocacy portray marriage as a method of racialized and gendered social control.

          …on and on.

          • http://gravatar.com/jayseidler jay

            So we agree the meaning of marriage is very broad. Therefore, if one want to specify a certain type of marriage, specific terms are essential.

  • Nick

    Somehow I don’t believe you read my comment, Miles. I gave complete legitimacy to adopted children. There is a long history of adoption as a means of bringing one into a family, as I acknowledged. my arguments do not come from a cultural majority any more than they come from a reasonable historical assessment.

    What I took issue with was Tony’s statement that the government is incentivizing a particular sexual relationship. The government protects family propeties, and pretty much always has. The only way to bring one to whom one is not married into a family is through natural birth or adoption, and this is certainly one reason why there has been, for most of recorded history, and certainly in the West, a privilege granted to heterosexual realtionships. That is what marriage always was and what th word always meant, because the word mapped to a real existing thing (a truth of correspondence rather than a pragmatic truth) – and that was a heterosexual relationship.

    Our government continues to protect the rights of families to whom heritability applies. And, to change such laws of heritability is certainly a significant change culturally, legally, economically (etc) if we define marriage as “any close or intimate union”. It may be what the world of today decides to do, and it is certainly a major change in many facets of life.


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