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.

Bakeries

People in North America have some weird misunderstandings about food. In North America a “bakery” is a place that sells sweet pastry, that was not necessarily baked at the same place or on the same day.

In France a bakery is a place in which various types of bread and perhaps also sweet pastry are baked and sold as fresh as possible. It is the same way in Israel, although in France there are probably many more of them. (The good thing about Israeli bakeries is that you can usually be sure that there’s no animal fat in the bread.)

In France they hardly sell bread in the supermarket – only weird and desperate people would buy bread in a plastic bag in a supermarket when such wonderful fresh bread can be bought near one’s home.

We traveled in many places in North America and hoped to find a bakery that sells fresh bread, but all the “bakeries” just sell sweet stuff. We love sweet stuff, but not too much of it.

But hey, that’s probably on of the reasons why so many Americans dream about going to Europe.

Change

This is not a post about Obama.


Here is a little comparison based on my short visits to a few North American cities. The hobos in Vancouver introduce themselves to tourists, ask them where do they live, say that they have relatives in that country and then ask for change so that they could pay for gas, pizza or a stay in YMCA – that is, they do much the same thing as the hobos in Haifa, Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv, Rome, Moscow and many other touristic cities. They were also the most annoying, but except that the city is very charming.

The hobos in San Francisco are quite similar, except they hold lovely honest signs such as “Need weed” and “Why lie? I want a beer!”

The hobos in Seattle didn’t try to harass me. In fact they all looked very intelligent, even in their rags. They actually seemed to develop intelligent conversations with the passers by. I didn’t talk to any of them.

Now, this shouldn’t come as a surprise, but the hobos and the weirdos of all the above cities are nowhere near those in New York City. I visited Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan below Central Park; i’ve seen the most interesting guys around Washington square. What’s really curious, though, is that the New York guys are also the ones that bothered me the least – they are very weird, but they mind their own business.

San Francisco 2010

Science fiction: A few minutes before midnight i found a hotel in San Francisco. And the parking is free. And it is within walking distance from the rental company where i return the car. And it is within walking distance from where i have business meetings tomorrow. And there are no junkies outside. And not only it is reasonably priced, the receptionist also gave me a “$10 per night discount for Jewish people”. We the Jews do rule the world – it’s not a myth.