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.


2 thoughts on “Marriage in Dictionaries

  1. This is like trying to define “love” in one unifying sense, which is impossible. Dictionaries and legal definitions can be thrown out the window here. Heck, not even our culture has any coherence on the subject, since everyone has their own “relative” way of using it.

    Ironically words were made to have a common structure of communication to avoid this and get to the point, but by this point words like this have no solid meaning anymore. Its like liquid assets literally thrown into the ocean. Its lost all value in my book, so I never use “marriage” as a serious word, more in line with how I say “shit” and “fuck” in situations not involved with it.

    1. Yes, nothing can be set in stone with language. But a good dictionary maker is supposed to find many appearances of a word in many representative texts and write a list of definitions according to that: what that word could mean in those texts. Merriam-Webster is a good dictionary, one of the best in the world – it’s very systematic and professional, and it has convincing methods for finding representative texts and for writing clear and precise definitions. So it’s impossible to write a perfect definition of all the words, certainly not of such complicated human institutions as marriage, but you can find a compromise for defining what people meant when they used the word in existing texts. That definition should be logically and linguistically correct, first of all. Merriam-Webster’s new definition is not so logical, because it repeats itself, and that is awkward and disappointing. Yes, I do happen to support marriage equality, but here it’s a matter of the clarity and precision of definition.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.