I found out about this story here.
It seems that those lovable old homophobes over at World Net Daily have been getting their knickers in a twist. Nothing unusual about that, you might think. On this particular occasion it’s because they’ve noticed that Webster’s, the leading US dictionary, have amended their definition of the word marriage to reflect the fact that it’s sometimes used to mean a relationship between two people of the same sex, as well as opposite-sex relationships. The WND article as a whole is worth reading for its unintentional hilarity, but I particularly enjoyed the first sentence:
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.
How sneaky and underhand can these liberals get? How dare the compilers of a dictionary go around writing definitions of words? I mean, it’s not as though that’s their job description, is it?
There’s actually an even richer and more ironic joke. Simply by running the story, WND have acknowledged that the definition of the word marriage is no longer straightforward, so to speak. By discussing the argument over how the word should be used, they have confirmed that the word is used in different ways. The compilers of Webster’s Dictionary, if they were feeling cruel (oh, and wouldn’t it be wonderful if they were?), could use the WND article itself as a supporting illustration confirming that, for good or ill, the word is no longer exclusively defined as the relationship between a man and a woman.
As it happens, the word has been used in America to refer to same-sex relationships for some considerable time. There’s a novel by a German author, Adolf Wilbrandt, that focuses on the relationship between a 40-year-old professor of art history, and a younger man who first becomes his student, and later moves in with him and shares his life. The novel was translated into English, and, according to the entry in the Library of Congress catalogue, was published in New York in 1884 (some other sources give the date of publication as 1888; however, the LoC entry is likely to be definitively correct). The book was published under the title Fridolin’s Mystical Marriage.
Despite this evidence that the word marriage has been used to describe an emotionally intimate relationship between two men for at least 125 years, WND devote quite a lot of the rest of the article to looking up the word in older print editions of Webster’s. So, you know what, in 1992 the definition of the word marriage didn’t mention same-sex relationships. And neither did the definition in the 1913 edition. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to the good people at WND that this is because the word is now commonly being used to refer to same-sex relationships in a way that it wasn’t previously. It also doesn’t seem to have occurred to them that Webster’s are not saying that they approve (or disapprove, for that matter) of the word being used in this way. All they are doing is neutrally reflecting, as they must if they want their dictionary to stay up to date, how other people are using the word (including, as we’ve seen, WND).
If you’re interested, by the way, the Oxford English Dictionary defines marriage as ‘the relation between persons married to each other’, and defines being married as being ‘united to another person’. The ‘marriage’ definition does include a supplementary note to the effect that ‘The term is now sometimes used with reference to long-term relationships between partners of the same sex.’, but I’m not sure it’s really necessary. Their main definition, after all, avoids the issue of gender altogether. It’s almost as though what matters about marriage is the quality and nature of the relationship between two people, not whether they have matching or contrasting genitalia.