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