February 25, 2004

Defining marriage

I've noticed that I twitch a little each time I hear someone talking about how what we've got to do is pass a law, or a constitutional amendment, that defines marriage as being between a man and a woman, as if something lexicographical was at issue. Yesterday we were treated to the most egregious case of this, when our president told us solemnly that he was "troubled by activist judges who are defining marriage," because "Marriage ought to be defined by the people, not by the courts." And I realized why this kind of talk was making me twitch. This issue is being represented as linguistic, relating to a democratic right of the people to stipulate word definitions, when it's nothing of the kind.

As Mark Liberman has repeatedly reminded us, there are dictionaries. To take Webster's, for example, this is the definition we have now for the word at issue:

marriage 1 a (1) : 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 (2) : the state of being united to a person of the same sex in a relationship like that of a traditional marriage <same-sex marriage> b : the mutual relation of married persons : WEDLOCK c : the institution whereby individuals are joined in a marriage
2 : an act of marrying or the rite by which the married status is effected; especially : the wedding ceremony and attendant festivities or formalities
3 : an intimate or close union <the marriage of painting and poetry -- J. T. Shawcross>

The definition says there are three main meanings, 1, 2, and 3: one for a state, relation, or institution, one for an act, and one for a more broadly conceived kind of union, respectively. The first of these, 1, divides into three sub-senses, a, b, and c: 1a for the state of being married, 1b for the relation of marriage to someone, and 1c for the institution of marriage. Then 1a is split into two sub-sub-senses, 1a(1) for the man-woman contract, and 1a(2) covering the same-sex equivalent. [Notice, that correctly avoids making it a contradiction when we talk about what Gavin Newsom has been allowing in San Francisco: we can't talk about permitting bachelors and spinsters to be married to each other and still be bachelors and spinsters, because that would be self-contradictory, but talking about "same-sex marriage" is not self-contradictory, it's just a use of meaning 1a(2) rather than 1a(1).]

Then there's sense 2, which denotes the act of marrying, and sense 3, a bit further afield, allows for all sorts of abstract and concrete close relationships and mergers.

This will all do just fine for all our linguistic purposes. We don't need to revise our language to have this discussion: English is flexible enough to allow us talk about both the narrower and the broader kinds of marriage: the marriage of Britney Spears or the marriage of true minds.

So I wish people — above all our president — wouldn't put their wedge issue in terms of this nonsense about how what's on the agenda is defining the term "marriage" more accurately and correctly as involving a man and a woman. We don't put definitions of words in the US constitution. (They change too frequently, that's one reason.) What's on the table here is taking away rights from certain couples: allowing what we are talking about when we use sense 1a(1), but disallowing what we are talking about when we use sense 1a(2). The proposal is to deny a specific subset of the people the advantages of a certain kind of contract. [Note: It has of course been customary for centuries to deny them any such right; but that is just the sort of thing that can change as our democracy evolves, and a few judges and at least one mayor have now decided that the change is long overdue.]

Go ahead, make my day (as Dirty Harry used to say): if they want a wedge issue, bring it on. Let them go ahead and try to pass, for the first time in the history of our country, a constitutional amendment aimed at taking rights away from a proper subset of the people. (The prohibition amendment was an ill-advised subtractive social amendment of similar type, but at least it took away the specified rights from all of the people. It was a big mistake, anyway, and soon had to be repealed.) But don't let them try to tell me they are revising a definition. It's nothing to do with defining the word "marriage". Webster's has done that perfectly well. It's about a denial of rights. The idea is that if you fall in love with a lesbian and want to marry her and live with her forever and share your life and property with her and be with her until you sit by her side at the hospital when she dies, that's O.K., but your rights will be subject to a limitation: you will be permitted all this under the sanction of the institution of marriage if you are male, but denied such permission if you are female. To add an insistence on that point in the constitution would be an act of discrimination, not of definition, so let's call things the way they are.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at February 25, 2004 03:54 PM