“WE CAN’T CHANGE THE DEFINITION OF MARRIAGE!” – the irrationality of worshipping the dictionary

I’ve been saying the following for months, but with the Commons vote on Equal Marriage rights finally on the doorstep, I want to reiterate it once more.

If you, like me, have the sadomasochistic tendencies required to want to read the comments sections on newspaper websites, you will be more than familiar with the argument that “marriage is between a man and a woman”. This is the same argument which, ad nauseam, we’ve been hearing from the Church for months.

Take this spectacular rendition of this horror show of an argument from Guardian contributor Lionel (who, for someone so evidently irate about the editorial practices of the Guardian, seems to have a surprisingly good knowledge of their recent publishing history – see the rest of his comment by following the link);

I’m not blinded by a fear of homosexuality or by bronze-age superstition, but it greatly distresses me to see how papers like the Guardian have agreed to go along with this unilateral attentuation of the English language. In all my seventy years on Earth, minus maybe the last two or three, the word “marriage” has denoted strictly a relationship between a man and a woman. If two homosexuals want to live under contractual conditions as close as possible analogous to what obtain between a married man and woman, fine, I am one of those many who have no objection, but why must English be interfered with? And why must a paper like the Guardian, a fine paper in its better moments, take part in this Orwellian practice of wiping out nuances?

Aside from my inability to recall the section of 1984 where Orwell warns us that the inevitable and terrible consequence of totalitarianism would be rights for gay people, I have to wonder why this commenter, like so many others, cares so deeply about the continuation and conservatism of the official definitions of language.

We could raise questions about whether, at a moral level, the impulse (for those who have it) to preserve the status of words should have any real significance, when there is so much to be gained in terms of equality, fairness and social cohesion from the opposite.

I could go on about the fluid nature of language and meaning. An important consequence of that argument would be the ability to point out that the meaning of the term “marriage” may well already have changed in the minds of many, and simply preserving the dictionary definition of it in the face of that is just stubborn folly.

Instead, for now, I want to focus on one specific thing – the sheer hypocrisy. The baffling hypocrisy of those who suddenly¬†are so passionate about arbitrarily preserving the dictionary definition of words, yet who seem to have sat idly by for generations whilst we’ve changed the meaning of many other words, without batting an eyelid.

Every June, the publishers of the OED put up a list of the new entries they’ve created. Here’s June 2012’s. I anticipated it being long, but the sheer length even surprised me. Did these language-obsessives weep bitter tears upon the addition of the terms “paywall”, “dogtrot” and “apatosaur” to the dictionary? (An apatosaur, by the way, is a very large dinosaur from the late Jurassic period.) When the Australian Macquarie dictionary changed the definition of “mysogyny” from “hatred of women” to “entrenched prejudice against women”, were Lionel and his mates howling at their TV screens in disbelief and anguish? The definition of “flying” had probably been static for millennia prior to the invention of the airplane. I’m not sure anybody went ape about that alteration to the English language – rather, they probably welcomed it as progress.

No. People usually don’t care when the definition of words changes. In fact, they usually couldn’t care less. Because it doesn’t matter. If anyone genuinely profoundly objects to us changing the meaning of words when it’s appropriate to do so, they probably need to seek help.

The meaning of words changes all the time. One cannot selectively start objecting to this established fact now that the definition of “marriage” is going to change from a “union between a man and a woman” to a “union between two people”. Rather, you could stop stubbornly clinging to Victorian concepts against the changing tide of history.


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About Jon Robinson

Lefty ex-politics student turned med student, interested in current affairs, economics, gender politics and health issues. Occasionally pretends to understand philosophy. @jon__robinson

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