Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

The Battle over Defining "Marriage"

The word marriage has been the subject of a huge amount of political and legal wrangling, and dictionaries have lately been caught in the crossfire. With major English dictionaries expanding their definitions of marriage to encompass same-sex unions, lexicographers have taken hits from liberals and conservatives alike. Those opposed to same-sex marriage would prefer that dictionaries maintain the traditional definition, while those on the other side of the debate argue that same-sex marriage shouldn't be treated as secondary. Lexicographers find themselves in a no-win situation.

As I describe in my most recent column for the Boston Globe, English-language dictionaries have been modifying their definitions of marriage over the past decade, as same-sex marriage has received greater cultural recognition and legal standing in various jurisdictions. The 11th edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, first published in 2003, revised its primary definition to read:

(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>

Similarly, the Random House entry (currently licensed by Dictionary.com) was changed to read:

a. the social institution under which a man and woman establish their decision to live as husband and wife by legal commitments, religious ceremonies, etc.
b. a similar institution involving partners of the same gender: gay marriage.

The latest dictionaries from American Heritage and Oxford explicitly point to the changing legal scene, both saying that marriage can apply to same-sex couples "in some jurisdictions." All of these dictionaries are somewhat hampered by the necessity of providing a terse, compact definition to a complex cultural, legal, and religious institution. At Vocabulary.com (the sister site of the Visual Thesaurus), the explanation given for the word marriage is more discursive, allowing for a better handle on the term's current nuances.

Though the different dictionary publishers have taken slightly varying approaches, they all have found room for the expanded sense of marriage, reflecting usage even among those who disagree with the legal advances of same-sex marriage in the United States and elsewhere. (Currently, six states in the U.S. recognize same-sex marriage, and ten countries recognize it nationwide.) As I say in the Globe column, even someone like Rick Santorum uses this newer sense of marriage as he argues against it. But I note that it's possible that Santorum sees same-sex marriage as a compound like peanut butter or jellyfish, where "X Y" isn't actually a kind of "Y." (Think also of poor Pluto, which is now classified as a dwarf planet but not a planet.) The Stanford linguist Arnold Zwicky calls these compounds "resembloid composites" — because, for instance, a jellyfish only resembles a fish without technically falling into the fish category.

While those opposed to same-sex marriage take issue with this extension of marriage, those now currently complaining about the Random House/Dictionary.com entry (in the form of a Change.org petition with more than 100,000 signatures) would like to replace the two-part definition into a single, gender-neutral version. But same-sex marriage is still what linguists would call a "marked category": marriage between a man and a woman is the "unmarked" cultural default, with same-sex marriage a semantic extension from the default. There may come a time when this "markedness" relationship disappears (leaving "heterosexual marriage" as a kind of retronym like analog clock or acoustic guitar), but in the meantime, lexicographers are likely to continue treating same-sex marriage as a subsidiary sense — not to disparage it, but to show how it is a later elaboration on the primary meaning.

For more discussion of this tricky terrain, check out my interview on NPR's "Talk of the Nation" with Neal Conan.


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Ben Zimmer is executive editor of Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Friday June 15th 2012, 10:35 AM
Comment by: Caleb L.
The real definition of marriage is found in the Bible. It started with God making Adam and Eve. One definition for the Bible is Malachi 2:14,15:

"But you say, “Why does he not?” Because the LORD was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant."
Monday June 18th 2012, 11:24 AM
Comment by: Patrica C. (Miami, FL)
How shall we define or think about a nun's marriage to God/Jesus, but the absence of such for priests?
Monday June 18th 2012, 7:37 PM
Comment by: Elizabeth B.
Marriage is always the union of A MAN and A WOMAN, blessed by God. There is no real marriage between two persons of the same gender! God made Woman and Man to compliment one another. God does not bless the union of two men, or two women. That is not a marriage. Sure, God has nothing against two persons of the same gender living in the same house as room-mates, but they definitely will never truly be each others spouse.
Wednesday June 20th 2012, 5:28 PM
Comment by: Brittney B. (New York, NY)
This article is not debating the institution of marriage; it is explaining the definition of marriage and ways the definition needs to change because of our evolving country. To be married, you do not have to be blessed by anyone. It is a conscious decision and union between two people, regardless of their sex. Whether you think marriage between same sex couples is wrong, there are numerous states that have legally and rightfully declared it legal. Even if some marriages involve religious ceremonies, these ceremonies aren't legally required, and so they shouldn't be central to the definition.
Saturday July 21st 2012, 7:31 AM
Comment by: Krista
Why not go with "an intimate or close union," "the mutual relation of married persons," or any of the other definitions which are more basic? I think that these (basic) definitions have been in use since the 14th century.
Thursday August 9th 2012, 5:56 PM
Comment by: jiya
I am agree with Elisabeth B.
Thursday August 9th 2012, 9:07 PM
Comment by: Elizabeth B.
The defenition I posted is not an opinion!!! It's the truth!!!
Thursday August 9th 2012, 9:12 PM
Comment by: Elizabeth B.
God is above the entire world, and God made marriage, and then blessed that union!!! The whole world could "legalize" unisex marriages, but that doesn't make it a real, genuine marriage.
Friday August 10th 2012, 4:20 PM
Comment by: PABLO R. (SANTA MONICA, CA)
Dolts !
Sunday August 19th 2012, 7:12 PM
Comment by: Chrissy (KS)
why change it now? keep it like it was. it has been around longer than we have. let traditional be traditional.

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