Archive for April, 2013

Marriage in Dictionaries

The definition of marriage is the hottest topic in US news lately.

My favorite place for looking up definitions of English words is, unsurprisingly, the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

And indeed, the editors of M-W’s website noticed the public interest in the definition of marriage, and here’s what they had to write about it:

The word became the subject of renewed scrutiny as the Supreme Court heard arguments in cases seeking to overturn California’s ban on gay marriage and the federal government’s Defense of Marriage Act.

Marriage has become a controversial definition, although its original sense – “the state of being united to a person of the opposite sex” – has not changed.

However, because the word is used in phrases such as “same-sex marriage” and “gay marriage” (by proponents and opponents alike), a second definition – “the state of being united to a person of the same sex in a relationship like that of a traditional marriage” – was added to the dictionary to provide an accurate picture of the word’s current use.

I recently read Herbert Morton’s excellent book The Story of Webster’s Third: Philip Gove’s Controversial Dictionary and Its Critics. It’s excellent because it’s very well written and because it could be a handbook in how to make dictionaries in general: how to balance scientific linguistic precision with usefulness to the general public.

Sadly, this remark about the definition of marriage is a departure from the principles of excellence that guided the editors of Webster’s Third. If the sentence says “same-sex marriage”, then “same-sex” means, literally, “same-sex”; there’s no need to say “the state of being united to a person of the same sex“.

Why not just say that “marriage” is “the state of being united to a person”? Maybe “legally united”, or “religiously united”. Or “united in a family”. It neatly avoids the political problems around sex and gender and all that, and is correct linguistically.

The official dictionary of the Catalan language already did it:

Comparison of two versions of a dictionary definition.

Comparison of two versions of a dictionary definition in the Catalan language.

The Institute of Catalan Studies, which publishes the dictionary, also publishes a list of updates in each edition. In this image you can see how the definition of marriage changed from “a legal union of a man and a woman” to “a legitimate union of two people who promise each other a common life, established through certain rituals or legal formalities”. The last usage example also says: “In some countries the legislation provides for marriage between two persons of the same sex”.

And well, yes, before you ask: of course there is a political background. Catalonia was one of the first jurisdictions that made same-sex marriage equal to different-sex marriage. But from the purely linguistic point of view the newer definition, which doesn’t mention a man and a woman, is perfectly correct. And saying that the definition of “marriage” is different in “marriage” and in “same-sex marriage” is not correct. Simple, really.

The Fateful March of 1998 – my #webstory

I first connected to the web in the summer of 1997. I bought a new computer with Windows 95 and Microsoft Internet Explorer 2. For about a week I thought that that’s how the web is supposed to look, but I kept seeing messages saying “Your browser doesn’t support frames” on a lot of sites. And then I found that there’s this thing called Microsoft Internet Explorer 3. I went to and downloaded it. It was the first piece of software that I downloaded. It was about 10 megabytes and took about an hour on my dial-up connection.

Most notably, Microsoft Internet Explorer 3 supported frames and animated GIFs. I loved animated GIFs! I guess that it makes me quite a hipster.

A cat in headphones dancing to house music.

House cat. Sorry, it’s an anachronism— this animated GIF is from mid-2000s. 1997’s animated GIFs were quite different.

And then Microsoft Internet Explorer 4 came out. I thought—”well, if the move from IE2 to IE3 made such a big difference, then I guess that I should try number 4, and it will be even cooler”. And I tried. And it was a disaster. The installation screwed up everything on my computer. I had no idea how to disable the dreaded Active Desktop, which it introduced. It didn’t work so well with my Hebrew version of Windows 95. So I did what a lot of people did very often back then and formatted my hard drive and re-installed Windows.

And the question arose—which browser should I use? IE3 was stable, but I didn’t like that it was getting old. So I went to, to try that Netscape Navigator browser that I kept hearing everybody talking about it.

And I loved it.

I loved its nifty toolbars and its bookmarks manager. I loved the crash reporting; it crashed quite often, actually, but I didn’t feel so bad about it, because Microsoft’s programs crashed often, too, and in case of Netscape I felt good about reporting these crashes. Netscape’s email program, Netscape Messenger, was truly outstanding. I especially loved the green dot, which marked messages as read and unread in one click. Most of all, it said very clearly something that I came to realize only years later: “I am a program that lets you browse the web as well as possible. I am not trying to do anything else.”

Fast forward to March 1998. Netscape made the big announcement that the development of its browser becomes an open source project code-named “Mozilla”. I started hearing about “open source”, “free software” and Linux shortly before that, but it was mostly in the context of crazy geek hobbyists. And then suddenly a big famous end-user product that I love becomes open source—that felt really cool.

I followed Mozilla news since then. I heard about Bugzilla before its first version was released. I liked Mozilla’s decision to redo the whole rendering based on standards, even though many people criticized it. The thing that annoyed me the most in Mozilla’s early years was the lack of support for proper right-to-left text support, which was present in Internet Explorer. That’s why I, sadly, used mostly IE, and even became a bit of an IE power user. But I waited eagerly for Mozilla to do it and tried every alpha release.

"Are you fed up with your browser? You're not alone. We want you to know that there's an alternative... Firefox." The logo of Firefox is drawn with names of people.

The famous New York Times ad.

I was thrilled about the announcement of Firefox, the first stable version of Mozilla’s browser. I gave 10$ to the famous 2004 New York Times Firefox advertisement, and I still have the poster of that advertisement at home.

A long list of names, including Amir Elisha Aharoni

And there’s my name. Third line in the middle.

It always seemed natural to me that I follow Mozilla news so eagerly. I thought that everybody does it. I mean, how is it even possible to use the web in any way without being at least a bit curious about the technology that runs it?

And then in 2008 I wrote a little unimportant post in my Hebrew blog about a funny spelling correction. Tomer Cohen commented on it and suggested me to try the Hebrew spelling dictionary and Hebrew Firefox in general. And that’s how my big love story with software localization began.

I started sending corrections to the translation of Firefox’s interface translation. I started sending corrections to the Hebrew spelling dictionary. I got so curious about the way the spelling dictionary was built that I ended up doing a whole university degree in Hebrew Language. Really.

And in 2011 I started working in the Language Engineering team in the Wikimedia Foundation. I love it, and it probably wouldn’t have happened without my involvement with Mozilla. In the same year I also became a Mozilla Rep—a volunteer representative of Mozilla at conferences, blogs and forums.

Probably the most important thing that I learned from my Mozilla story is that loving the web and being curious about it is not something obvious. Most people just want something that works for checking weather, news, Facebook friends updates, homework help and kitten videos. And for the most part, that is perfectly fine. But the people’s freedom to read reliable and complete news on any electronic device cannot actually be taken for granted. Neither the people’s freedom and privacy to share their thoughts in social networks. Mozilla is among the most important organizations that care for these things and it develops technologies that make them possible. Technologies that let you browse the web as well as possible and don’t try to do anything else.

We do it for one simple reason: We love the web.

Do you love it, too?

P.S. As I began writing this post, I realized that Microsoft’s Active Desktop was not so different from today’s devices, which are heavily based on web technologies: Firefox OS, Chrome OS and others. I can’t say that I love Microsoft, but as it often happens, it was quite pioneering with ideas, and not so good with their execution. Credit where credit’s due.