The Fight Over Defining Marriage, Literally
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.”