Rumors say the Oxford English Dictionary will soon change its definition of the term marriage to include same-sex couples. While this has sent the Religious Right into meltdown, it isn’t actually true — yet.
Now that marriage equality is gaining ground across not just America but many nations around the world, those who compose and catalog word usage in our dictionaries are having to ask themselves whether now is the time to amend the definition of marriage.
To this end, when the Oxford University Press (OUP) confirmed to Gay Star News’ Joe Morgan that they are monitoring the definition of “marriage” for the purposes of amending the Oxford English Dictionary at some point in the future, the news quickly went global:
“We continually monitor the words in our dictionaries, paying particular to those words whose usage is shifting, so yes, this will happen with marriage,” the OUP spokesperson is quoted as saying. “We are constantly monitoring usage in this area in order to consider what revisions and updates we may need to make.”
The definition most commonly quoted to represent this story is from OxfordDictionaries.com. It defines marriage as the “formal union of a man and a woman, typically as recognised by law, by which they become husband and wife.”
In a related note, the online dictionary also highlights marriage “[in some jurisdictions is also] a union between partners of the same sex.”
As is typical among many on the Religious Right, several commentators have condemned this move as “Orwellian” and that it is the inevitable conclusion of countries like England and Wales legalizing same-sex marriage.
“We can change the meaning of words but we can’t change reality. True marriage is the union of one man and one woman,” Andrea Minichiello Williams, CEO of so-called religious rights group Christian Concern, is quoted as saying. “The further we move away from the truth, the more we start to live in a fictitious world. The distinction between male and female is a very basic and fundamental truth. To say that male and female are interchangeable — as same sex ‘marriage’ does — is a rejection of the nature of what God has made.”
This comes after anti-gay marriage groups in France protested the Larousse dictionary amending its definition to a “solemn act between two same-sex or different-sex persons, who decide to establish a union.”
France went on to become the 13th country to recognize same-sex marriage.
The main issue with this story is that the media meat-grinder has failed to give an accurate interpretation of the OUP’s words. As such, the Director of U.S. Publicity for the Oxford University Press has now issued a clarification to Salon, saying:
Many of our dictionaries including the Oxford English Dictionary, as well as oxforddictionaries.com, already include references to same sex-marriage as part of their definitions. Dictionaries reflect changes in the use of language, rather than changes in law, and we are constantly monitoring usage in this area in order to consider what revisions and updates we may need to make. The English language is always developing and, along with many other words, we will continue to monitor the way in which ‘marriage’ is used.
So the OUP is monitoring the usage and will consider making the definition more inclusive in the future but, for now, is not amending the definition.
Furthermore, and as Salon’s commentator Ben Zimmer points out, the OxfordDictionaries.com definition is actually only a quick reference and does not represent the totality of the Oxford English Dictionary’s current and complete definition of marriage, which is:
“The condition of being a husband or wife; the relation between persons married to each other; matrimony.”
The second part of that wider definition, you will note, is gender neutral and so may already be classed as same-sex couple-inclusive, though obviously there is still room for improvement.
The manufactured outrage over this non-story about the “Orwellian redefinition of marriage” does have a certain element of irony, however.
The Oxford English Dictionary is not prescriptive but descriptive.
The OED reflects accepted usage and adjusts when words are widened to include different meanings or characteristics, adds to itself when neologisms are offered and retires those terms that fall out of favor. It does not demand strict definitions precisely because it recognizes that language is an evolving creature constantly changing as society changes.
It is, in essence, the antithesis of “Orwellian.”
But those who argue that marriage cannot cover same-sex couples because, they say, their religion only defines marriage as a heterosexual union and would then have all of society abide by that definition – that is distinctly, worryingly, close to the Orwellian ideal.
Fortunately, we are increasingly rejecting this prescriptive notion of what constitutes a marriage in favor of recognizing the love and commitment that binds a couple, a definition that is wholly more reasonable.
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