The very definition of marriage

A lexicographer awaits the court’s decision.

Demonstrators outside the Supreme Court earlier this year.
Demonstrators outside the Supreme Court earlier this year. (Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)

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.”


My partner and I married in 2004, a few months after Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage. After 10 years together, we were overjoyed that we finally could. Our wedding day was a very happy occasion; I didn’t think once about the treatment of “marriage” in the dictionary.

But there would be cause to reanalyze this entry. The staff spent seven years preparing the fifth edition (published in 2011), making hundreds of thousands of revisions, including the addition of 10,000 words and meanings. We consulted dozens of specialists in areas as broad as mathematics and as narrow as condensed-matter physics. Our legal consultant, Michele Cotton, spent three years reviewing more than 2,000 entries, “marriage” among them.

“[I]t is not legally correct to say that marriage is defined as the union between a man and woman,” Michele wrote in early 2008. Same-sex unions were then legal in Canada and Massachusetts; some 17,000 couples wed in the few months that they were legal in California. By the time then-executive editor Joseph Pickett and I began reviewing Michele’s edits under M, Connecticut had also legalized them.


The law had changed, so the definition would have to change, too. Our research and discussion resulted in a new primary definition: “The legal union of a man and woman as husband and wife, and in some jurisdictions, between two persons of the same sex, usually entailing legal obligations of each person to the other.” By explicitly referencing “some jurisdictions,” we encompassed the range of legal marriages in the first sense, without implying a reality that was untrue in other parts of the country.

The day we finalized the definition in January 2009 didn’t seem momentous to me. That morning I also approved revisions to the entries for several birds beginning with the letter T (“toucan,” “trumpeter swan,” “tui”) and added the pronunciation for “nociception” (“The perception of pain, resulting from neural processing of pain stimuli”). We’re continuously revising the lexicon, not idly waiting for socially significant moments to spur us into action.

An essay I wrote for the Advocate in 2009 following the unexpected death of my husband publicized the change to “marriage” and related terms in the American Heritage Dictionary. Other dictionaries had also made similar changes around this time. These didn’t cause a great outcry. I would like to think that this is because of the way our lexicographical team carefully structured and phrased the definition to reflect the legal landscape. The fact that I’m gay and was married was as irrelevant to the task as the fact that Joseph is straight and married. We maintain professional objectivity, even when a definition concerns events that touch us personally.


The Supreme Court ruling could affect the lives of millions of Americans. As a lexicographer, I’ll pick up my red pencil only if a revision becomes necessary once again. As a citizen, I have great hope that the court will rule in favor of marriage equality.

Steve Kleinedler is executive editor of the reference group at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, publishers of the American Heritage and Webster’s New World dictionaries. Send comments to