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The war on the word ‘marriage’

Marriage | Though gay rights advocates said they didn’t want to change the definition of marriage, change it they did

Last year when the debate about same-sex marriage raged through America and Britain, there was widespread concern regarding the cultural consequences of changing the definition of marriage. In response to these concerns, the gay rights lobby frequently denied that the meaning of marriage was hanging in the balance.

“We are not wanting to change the definition of marriage,” the champions of gay marriage would repeatedly point out. “We simply want to expand the pool of people eligible to get married.”

Now that the dust has settled, it has become undeniable that they did want to change the definition of marriage, with far-reaching cultural consequences.

‘Not make it different’

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Faced with apologists for traditional marriage like Brian Brown, Maggie Gallagher, and Jennifer Roback Morse who kept maintaining that if same-sex unions became marriages it would change the definition of the word, the advocates of “marriage equality” routinely dismissed such anxieties as conservative scare-mongering without actually refuting the grounds of those concerns. When the gay rights lobby did bother to interact with these apprehensions at all, they argued that these concerns were not only needless, but also based on a confusion of categories.

Kris Perry, plaintiff in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Hollingsworth v. Perry, summarized this thinking when she declared, “We want access to something without changing it. We want to be able to have what others have. Not make it different.”

The gay rights activist group Freedom to Marry was equally clear when it announced on its website, “Allowing committed gay and lesbian couples to get married does not change the meaning of marriage.”

This was echoed by another action group, Marriage Equality USA, when it publicly declared, “We are not asking the gov’t to change marriage.”

Indeed, up through mid 2013, transatlantic advocates of same-sex marriage all gave unanimous testimony to the fact that their work had nothing to do with definition changing.

Dictionary hacking

Well, almost unanimous. Within the ranks of gay marriage champions there was one group that took a more radical—and, I would argue, more honest—approach. HACKmarriage, an anonymous group based in San Francisco, existed for the sole purpose of vandalizing dictionaries to remove the traditional conjugal definition of marriage. On its website, HACKmarriage announced that its mission is: “Hacking dictionaries to update the meaning of marriage.”

“We envision a city where every library and every bookstore has a hacked dictionary that reflects this more accurate meaning of marriage,” a representative for HACKmarriage said. “Because when our definitions change, we change. As a people, as a culture, as a society.”

To facilitate this, HACKmarriage provided stickers to place in dictionaries to cover over the definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman. The sticker reads:

mar•riage /’marij/ n.1 the formal union of two people by which they become partners for life.”

Two rival understandings

Though the difference between the two definitions is only a matter of a few words, it is crucial. The conjugal definition asserts that marriage is a union between a man and a woman, whereas the revisionist definition asserts that marriage is a union of two persons.

Each of these competing definitions is shorthand for an implied network of understandings that extend beyond the definition itself. (For more information about this, see my series of articles for the Colson Center on the meaning of marriage.) In the conjugal understanding—although our concept of marriage involves a degree of cultural relativity—at its core marriage is something specific, namely a sexually dimorphous union publicly recognized because of its potential fecundity. By contrast, the revisionist understanding also asserts that at its core marriage is something specific, namely a union of consenting persons (or adults) who commit to romantic partnership and domestic life. (Some revisionists like Andrew Koppelman have gone even further to say that marriage does not refer to something specific at all because it is entirely culturally relative; therefore marriage is a social construct and can mean whatever we choose for it to mean.)

The Oxford English Dictionary capitulates

In June 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court issued two rulings that paved the way for same-sex couples to get legally married in certain American states. Quick on the heels of these rulings, in July 2013, the government of Great Britain passed a law to bring same-sex marriage to England and Wales.

Shortly after these rulings, the job of changing the dictionaries was taken out of the hands of “dictionary terrorists” and embraced by the elite institution that publishes dictionaries. Seven days after Britain’s same-sex marriage bill received royal assent, the Gay Star News website reported that a spokesperson for the Oxford English Dictionary had told the site it would consider changing the definition of marriage. At the time, the prestigious multi-volume dictionary defined marriage as the “formal union of a man and a woman, typically as recognized by law, by which they become husband and wife.”


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