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.
Merriam-Webster Collegiate’s primary definition of marriage is “the state of being united to a person of the opposite sex as husband or wife in a consensual and contractual relationship recognized by law.” Since 2003, it has also included a secondary sense: “the state of being united to a person of the same sex in a relationship like that of a traditional marriage.” When a Twitter follower asked Sokolowski why “same-sex and opposite-sex marriage are differentiated,” Sokolowski responded, “This isn’t about ascribing equal rights to people; it’s about describing the use of the word.”
Meanwhile, a New Hampshire man named Mike Raven was distraught by how the North Carolina referendum results had upset his twin sister, who is a lesbian. Surveying how dictionaries treat the word marriage, he decided to launch an online petition seeking a definition that doesn’t specify gender at all. His original target was Merriam-Webster, but he quickly changed the subject of the petition to Dictionary.com, the most popular online dictionary. “While we cannot change the oppressive and discriminatory way that some religions continue to define marriage, we can go to an even better place,” Raven wrote in the petition, which has attracted more than 100,000 signatures. “I believe it is time to correct the definition of ‘marriage’ at our sources for what words mean: dictionaries.”
But are dictionaries really “our sources for what words mean”? That imparts a social power to lexicographers that they themselves would likely disavow: To them, dictionaries merely reflect common usage. From that perspective, Raven’s lobbying effort puts the cart before the horse, presupposing that if you change a dictionary definition, you change people’s view of the world. Still, naive as this notion may seem, dictionaries do hold sway as a kind of umpire in semantic disputes—and sometimes even in legal ones.
Raven’s beef with Dictionary.com (which is based largely on the Random House Dictionary) focuses on the fact that, as in Merriam-Webster, marriage has a two-part definition, with gay marriage in the second part. But that fact is not intended to relegate same-sex marriage to second-class status. Random House organizes its entries with the “most frequently encountered” meaning first. Merriam-Webster orders its definitions historically; as the dictionary’s associate editor Kory Stamper told me, their treatment is intended “primarily to show the evolution of the word’s meaning.”
Despite the belief among some social conservatives that marriage has always meant one thing, its definition has been evolving for as long as there have been dictionaries. For instance, the Century Dictionary, edited by the great American linguist William Dwight Whitney in the late 19th century, included “plural” marriage in its entry, said to apply “especially to the kind of polygamy existing among the Mormons, without the accompaniment of the harem of Oriental countries, each wife usually living in a separate house.”
When Merriam-Webster made room for same-sex marriage in its 11th Collegiate edition, the change ignited a firestorm of criticism from the right. The conservative news site World Net Daily picked up on the revision in 2009, writing, “One of the nation’s most prominent dictionary companies has resolved the argument over whether the term ‘marriage’ should apply to same-sex duos or be reserved for the institution that has held families together for millennia: by simply writing a new definition.” This criticism is misguided in its own way: Lexicographers would be bereft in their descriptive duty if they ignored the way people were using the word.
After all, even those who argue passionately against sanctioning same-sex marriage reflect this changing meaning in their language use. Take Rick Santorum, who spent much of the Republican presidential primary season making “common-sense” arguments for the traditional definition of marriage. In Iowa last year, he said that “calling same-sex marriage a marriage would be like calling a cup of tea a basketball.” But the only way he could describe what he opposed was to use the expression “same-sex marriage.”
Perhaps Santorum applies silent scare quotes around the word marriage every time he uses it in that context, or perhaps he sees “same-sex marriage” as one of those contradictory compounds like peanut butter (not really butter) and jellyfish (not really a fish). But more likely he’s just describing the type of marriage that involves two people of the same sex, using the language his listeners will understand. And to a dictionary editor, concerned with people’s actual usage, it’s significant that a terminological shift is happening across the political spectrum.
Why should activists on either side of this issue be so obsessed with dictionary definitions? The fact is, even if lexicographers are rankled by lobbying efforts from ideological factions, the petitioners and sign-wavers are not entirely wrong about the power dictionaries hold. We all turn to dictionaries as societal umpires, a standard for what is common parlance in America; it’s hardly surprising that people want the calls to go in their favor.
And, in rare cases, a patient and well-reasoned plea by dictionary lobbyists actually works. When the American Heritage Dictionary editors added audism to the last edition, defined as “discrimination or prejudice against people based on the fact that their ability to hear is impaired or absent,” the deaf author John Lee Clark pointed out that the wording was, well, audist. The editors reconsidered; the online definition now refers to “people who are deaf or hard of hearing.”
Beyond regular people looking up words, however, dictionaries have one even more powerful path of influence: They may be used by those who really are in a position to change the law. Courts often care about how dictionaries represent the “ordinary meaning” of words, particularly when those words aren’t adequately defined by statutes. For example, when the Rhode Island Supreme Court ruled in a 2007 opinion that that the state’s Family Court lacked jurisdiction over a same-sex couple married in Massachusetts, the judges hit the dictionaries to back up their ruling. They found that at the time the Family Court was created by statute in 1961, dictionaries agreed that “marriage” was limited solely to one man and one woman.
We’re not living in 1961 anymore, of course. If DOMA reaches the US Supreme Court soon, as seems increasingly likely, and the justices consult the leading English dictionaries, they will find that lexicographers already have changed their tune about the scope of marriage. As society changes, so do our dictionaries—like it or not.
Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com and Vocabulary.com. He can be reached at benzimmer.com/contact.