Dictionaries notice evolving meanings of marriage

Posted on 24 Mar 2009 at 12:05am
By Lisa Leff Associated Press

Changes began several years ago but ignited controversy after report on Christian news site

SAN FRANCISCO — Only two states may have laws on the books sanctioning same-sex marriages, but the nation’s leading dictionary publishers have updated their definitions of the word "marriage" to recognize gay unions.

The changes actually were initiated several years ago, before gay couples could legally tie the knot anywhere in the United States. But they only gained widespread notice, and ignited a war of words on the Internet, after the conservative World Net Daily news site published an article about the latest Merriam-Webster entry for the term.

"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," the online publication said late Tuesday, March 17.

In its online and print editions, Merriam-Webster still defines marriage as "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."

But in a nod to evolving ideas of love and English usage, the Springfield, Mass.-based company in 2003 added a secondary meaning for "marriage" as "the state of being united to a person of the same sex in a relationship like that of a traditional marriage."

Merriam-Webster issued a statement Wednesday, March 18 explaining that the edited entry merely reflected the frequency with which the term "same-sex marriage" had popped up in print and become part of the general lexicon.

"In recent years, this sense of ‘marriage’ has appeared frequently and consistently through a broad spectrum of carefully edited publications, and is often used in phrases such as ‘same-sex marriage’ and ‘gay marriage’ by proponents and opponents alike," the statement read. "Its inclusion was a simple matter of providing dictionary users with accurate information about all of the word’s current uses."

Merriam-Webster spokesman Arthur Bicknell added that the company was surprised the revision was creating a stir only now.

"What we are finding odd is that this is neither news nor unusual," Bicknell said. "In fact, we were kind of late to the party. We were one of the last ones among the major dictionary publishers to do this."

Boston-based Houghton-Mifflin, publisher of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, last modified its definition of marriage in 2000. The fourth example it gives, after "1a. The legal union of a man and woman as husband and wife. b. The state of being married; wedlock. and c. A common-law marriage," is "A union between two persons having the customary but usually not the legal force of marriage: a same-sex marriage."

Just this month, an even more inclusive definition of marriage was added in draft form to the voluminous Oxford English Dictionary, which publisher Oxford University Press describes as "the definitive record of the English language."

Recognizing that "the term is now sometimes used with reference to long-term relationships between partners of the same sex," the dictionary’s editors have proposed updating the primary sense of the word to mean "the condition of being a husband or wife; the relation between persons married to each other; matrimony."

Until now, OED’s main entry for marriage, last updated in 1989, read, "The condition of being a husband or wife; the relation between married persons; spousehood, wedlock."

Connecticut and Massachusetts are the only states where gay marriage is legal.

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