"redefining" marriage

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Tue Jun 4 13:57:05 UTC 2013

I've been using the AHD lemmas for "marriage" as a conversation piece in classes since the earlier and even more confusing entry in AHD4 (2000):

1 a. The legal union of a man and woman as husband and wife.
   b. The state of being married; wedlock.
   c.  A common-law marriage.
   d. A union between two persons having the customary but usually not the legal force of marriage: a same-sex marriage.

Note the relation between "senses" 1a and 1d.


On Jun 4, 2013, at 1:07 AM, Geoffrey Nunberg wrote:

> I enjoyed Steve's piece, and my long association with the AHD has left me with nothing but respect for the capability of him and the other editors. At the same time, it seems to me the AHD's current def of 'marriage' is something of a jumble. Here's the whole thing, apart from some irrelevant senses:
> a. The legal union of a man and woman as husband and wife, and in some jurisdictions, between two persons of the same sex, usually entailing legal obligations of each person to the other.
> b. A similar union of more than two people; a polygamous marriage.
> c. A union between persons that is recognized by custom or religious tradition as a marriage.
> d. A common-law marriage.
> Why four senses here? Do we want to say that the marriage between opposite-sex couples that is legally recognized in some jurisdictions isn't the same kind of thing as the legally unrecognized "marriage" among three or more people, or the "marriage" recognized by only a church? Are these really different meanings of the word? (And what do we do with "d. A common law marriage" -- what could be the sense of 'marriage' in the definiens, a, b, c, or something else?)
> Mind you, I don't think the AHD's new def is as cluelessly spineless as that of Merriam-Webster, who go with what I think of as a two-state solution, where the word is given two senses: "the state of being united to a person of the opposite sex," and "the state of being united to a person of the same sex in a relationship like that of traditional marriage." Which is to say that same-sex couples can be, like, "married" but not exactly _married_, if you take my meaning.
> But there are problems with the AHD def too, which I think come of trying to serve several masters at once. It seems to me that (a) in particular (in the AHD, the first sense is usually the most central meaning not the earliest) presupposes that the opponents of same-sex marriage are absolutely right to claim that the courts are "redefining" the word. That would entail that the phrase "legally married" is redundant, and that the historical restriction of marriage to opposite-sex couples was not a legal restriction on who could ask for state sanction of their union, but a matter of lexical analyticity. In which case, until recently, at least, Rush Limbaugh was right to say that "By definition, same-sex people cannot be married."
> I much prefer the way the Encarta dealt with this, via lumping rather than splitting: "a legally recognized relationship ... between two people who intend to live together as sexual and domestic partners." As I understand that, it's not giving a "new meaning" to the word -- it reflects a realization that that's what "marriage" has *always* meant, even if the state and other institutions have historically denied some relationships the right to recognition. In other words, lexicographers should just go for it. The English language doesn't owe Antonin Scalia a living.
> I did a "Fresh Air" piece on this a couple of months ago that drew some further comparisons; it's at http://goo.gl/130d6
> Geoff
>> From: Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at YALE.EDU>
>> Subject: our Steve Kleinedler on the lexicographer's waiting game
>> Date: June 3, 2013 6:50:48 AM PDT
>> The very definition of marriage
>> A lexicographer awaits the court’s decision.
>> IN THE RUN-UP to the momentous Supreme Court decision about marriage equality, one often hears the phrase “redefining marriage.” But who writes the definitions that appear in dictionaries? Even in this age of crowd sourcing and automation, the answer is a traditional one: a small number of lexicographers like me. As a member of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language editorial staff, I am interested in the court’s decision because it could affect our current definition of marriage.  […]
>> http://www.bostonglobe.com/magazine/2013/06/01/dictionary-editor-awaits-court-decision-gay-marriage/SrjR30muFvdfy0eYqFN9WK/story.html
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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