A Monthly Column for Word Lovers
Wedding Bells are Knitting Together That Old Gang of Mine
A popular song from early in the 20th century, covered many times since then, was Wedding Bells Are Breaking Up That Old Gang of Mine. Here's the breakout version from crooner Gene Austin:
The song came to my mind last month, when I returned to the East Coast (having quit it three years ago) to attend an annual party that I had missed two years running. All the old familiar faces were there, but with a twist: three of the party's couples, previously "partnered," are now married. All of them live in Maryland or Pennsylvania, and all of them are now married to someone of the same sex. So in a novel way, wedding bells are not breaking up that old gang of mine; they're consolidating it.
The song has the lyric
Well, there goes Jack, there goes Jim,
Strollin' down Lovers' Lane
Now and then we meet again
But they don't seem the same.
The implication for earlier auditors of the song is that Jack and Jim are strolling down Lover's Lane on different occasions with women on their arms, not hand-in-hand with each other. Today it's possible to construe the meaning of the words differently.
The interesting linguistic feature at the party for me was the rather jarring reaction I experienced when I heard a man refer to his married partner as a husband, and a woman refer to her married partner as a wife. The mappings in my lexicon between word and meaning have not caught up to this new usage. I'm not alone in this! Many dictionaries have also not caught up. The definition of husband that reads "a married man; a woman's partner in marriage" is only half right for a male couple, and the complementary definition of wife is only half right for a female couple.
I think most speakers have not caught up with this either, because members of each of these couples related to me anecdotes of interesting reactions they had unintentionally evoked in public by referring to their spouse by the term that, when used with a first-person possessive pronoun, was previously reserved for use by members of the sex opposite to theirs. It's a case of encoding words with a claim to new semantic territory in the lexicons of some speakers that encounter resistance or a disconnect when listeners attempt to decode them—because no such mapping is found in the listeners' lexicons.
That mapping problem is one way you could sum up the tortuous twists and turns taken by arguments about the legality of same-sex marriage, when cases about it were recently aired in the US Supreme Court. If you are a lover of language and you have not listened to the arguments yet, you have a treat in store: an opportunity to listen to some very smart minds grapple with the question of whether the idea of marriage can or should be expanded to include a commitment to a legal relationship between people of the same sex. In listening to the arguments (you can find them here and here), I was struck by how often both the lawyers arguing the cases, and the Justices themselves, referred to the definition of marriage. Definition occurs more than 50 times in the arguments, and the "meaning of marriage" is also repeatedly discussed.
Chief Justice Roberts raised the alarm about the imperiled definition of marriage very early in the proceedings, when he noted:
Every definition that I looked up, prior to about a dozen years ago, defined marriage as unity between a man and a woman as husband and wife. Obviously, if you [the petitioners] succeed, that core definition will no longer be operable.
The theme of the obsoleted definition is revisited continuously in the arguments for both questions before the court. Justice Kennedy observes at one point:
This definition has been with us for millennia. And it's very difficult for the Court to say, oh, well, we—we know better.
Justice Kennedy's point here is presumably not about the dictionary definition—since dictionaries have not existed for millennia—but it seems reasonable to assume that he means to say that for as long as people have thought about marriage, it has been conceived as a union of a man and a woman, until very recently. That intention notwithstanding, one of the lawyers before the court (Mr. John Bursch, who is the "Special Assistant Attorney General" for Michigan), takes the notion of the threatened definition and runs with it, cleverly twisting the remarks of Justices Roberts and Kennedy into something that neither of them said. He warns that
when you change something as fundamental as the marriage definition, as Chief Justice Roberts was saying, the dictionary definition which has existed for millennia, and you apply that over generations, . . . those changes matter.
With the traducement achieved by this mashup of misinterpretations firmly in hand, Mr. Bursch then argues that
there's harm if you change the definition because, in people's minds, if marriage and creating children don't have anything to do with each other, then what do you expect? You expect more children outside of marriage.
The logic of this line of reasoning was hard for the Justices to follow and they effectively shredded it in the Q&A that followed. But the more interesting general question that the discussion raises is whether dictionary definitions do in fact have a ruling influence in people's lives, and whether decisions made by courts effectively change dictionary definitions.
I believe the answer to both questions is "no". Good dictionary definitions are post facto affairs: they reflect not what words should mean but what lexicographers, after careful study of usage, determine that speakers mean when they use words. And courts do not change dictionary definitions. Speakers do. (For more on this subject, see Ben Zimmer's Word Routes column from 2012, "The Battle Over Defining 'Marriage.'")
Will speakers determine that marriage can claim semantic territory that accommodates same-sex couples? For many it's clear that this change has already occurred and that 'marriage' maps easily to an enlarged concept that doesn't require gender complementarity in the participants. Many others, however, are deeply discomfited by the notion that the denotation of a word that has been stable for nearly 800 years has begun to shift under their feet. What the Supreme Court has to say about it later this month will be of great interest to everyone.