Linguist Geoff Nunberg on the meaning of “marriage”

Doug Carlson sees a firestorm unleashed by the California court’s marriage ruling. Me too. But I see the fire burning in a totally different direction than Doug. What got me going in Doug’s post, though, was his use of quotation marks around the word “marriage.”

Yesterday on Fresh Air linguit Geoff Nunberg had a stirring essay on just that topic. I urge you to listen in its entirety. To entice you I quote extensively from it here. It’s titled, Love and Marriage: Still Going Together?

A couple of months ago, the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary made some long-overdue revisions in the definitions for a bunch of gender-related words. Before then, the dictionary definition of girlfriend, in the meaning sweetheart, read “a man’s favorite female companion,” which would have precluded lesbians from having girlfriends in the romantic sense. And the old definition of love read “that feeling of attachment which is based upon difference of sex and which is the normal basis of marriage.” So both words were given new definitions that would cover their use to refer to same-sex relationships.

But this isn’t a matter of rampant political correctness or of giving the words new meanings. It isn’t as if the English language has ever ruled out talking about lesbians having girlfriends, much less kept Shakespeare from describing a romantic attachment between two men as “love.” It’s just that when the original definitions were written, those sorts of relationships were officially invisible. Those re-definitions came to mind as I was listening to the renewed debate about gay marriage. To a lot of people, that notion isn’t simply a threat to God’s plan or the social order but an affront to English. As one conservative columnist put it, “It’s a desecration of language.” Do a Google search for Web pages containing “same-sex marriage” and the like together with “oxymoron,” and you turn up 125,000 hits, most of them posted by people who would tell you that the phrase same-sex marriage is as semantically anomalous as female rooster.

Now, it’s true that most people with reservations about gay marriage aren’t primarily motivated by their concern for the proprieties of English usage. But it’s always useful to be able to frame your position on an issue as a defense of the traditional definition of a word. It’s a way of folding your argument into the language itself so that it doesn’t require analysis. What could be more cut and dried than a dictionary entry?

In this particular case, though, dictionaries themselves aren’t always helpful in sorting things out. Lexicographers know that nobody’s going to go to the mattress to defend the traditional definitions of words like love and girlfriend. But when it comes to marriage, they start looking nervously over both their shoulders. People only look the word up to make a point, and when they don’t find what they want, they’re liable to organize a letter-writing campaign or punch in an angry blog entry.

Some dictionaries try to placate both sides with a Solomonic solution. Both Merriam-Webster’s and the Oxford American Dictionary have retained their old definition of marriage as a union between people of the opposite sex and added an additional sense of the word that applies specifically to same-sex unions that resemble traditional marriages. It recalls the editorial practice The Washington Times followed until recently, where it always put marriage in quotes when referring to homosexuals.

But there’s no way to split the baby here…

For more on that allusion to The Washington Times, see here for the memo marking the day the threw in the towel and accepted the inevitable.

Heres’s Nunberg’s wonderful concluding paragraph:

[This] discussion would benefit if everybody could agree to lose the word “traditional,” which has probably worked as much mischief over the last half century as any other word in American public life. It’s a word people use to muddle the past so that it doesn’t have to explain or justify itself. In fact, when people defend something as traditional, what they have in mind almost always turns out to be a purely modern concoction, like the pastiche of Chippendale, French Provincial, Queen Anne and Colonial that goes by the name of “traditional” on an Ethan Allen bedroom set.

“Traditional marriage” brings to mind the same sort of thing, a hodgepodge of customs, laws, and restrictions, secular and religious, jumbling places and periods willy-nilly. In either case, you can’t tell what’s the frame and what’s the filigree.

3 Comments

  1. Thanks Joe! I heard this story while out running errands and was going to look it up for you.

  2. After reading Nunberg's well-reasoned argument why the word 'traditional' should be dropped when describing marriage, I'm left with the feeling that we would need a substitute word to make a distinction.
    How, then, to distinguish between the meaning of the word 'marriage' as it has been used in the past from the defiinition of marriage as it is evolving in today's world.?
    Historical context has to be reflected in any text, and we need a vocabulary to detect it.

  3. Marriage has never been consistently defined.

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