IN THE RUN-UP to the momentous Supreme Court decision about marriage equality, one often hears the phrase “redefining marriage.” But who writes the definitions that appear in dictionaries? Even in this age of crowd sourcing and automation, the answer is a traditional one: a small number of lexicographers like me. As a member of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language editorial staff, I am interested in the court’s decision because it could affect our current definition of marriage.
Like many words, “marriage” has multiple meanings, and each sense in the entry defines one of them. Before 1998, our primary sense read: “The legal union of a man and woman as husband and wife.” But by 1998 the expression “same-sex marriage” had become widespread, and we added another sense: “A union between two persons having the customary but usually not the legal force of marriage: a same-sex marriage.”