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The Boston Globe

Ideas

The Word

The fight over defining marriage, literally

Can you change the world by changing the dictionary?

Is there any word currently more contested in our culture than marriage? Over the past month or so, we’ve seen North Carolina become the 30th state to approve a constitutional provision restricting marriage to one man and one woman, followed by President Obama declaring that he now supports marriage being extended to same-sex couples. Then a federal appeals court in Boston unanimously ruled that a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman, is unconstitutional. The issue could find its way to the US Supreme Court as early as next year.

When definitions are at stake, as in the marriage debates, the dictionary can become a political football. On May 9, the day of Obama’s announcement, Merriam-Webster lexicographer Peter Sokolowski reported in his Twitter feed that the word marriage was “spiking off the charts” in terms of online dictionary lookups. And those who checked the dictionary weren’t always pleased with what they found.

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