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March 7, 2017 / Congau

What Is Marriage?

Well, are you asking what it means or what it should mean? In the first case, consult a dictionary, in the second… well, then it’s all up to you. If you think the word “marriage” should refer to a big animal with a trunk, be my guest, you may have your private language. For the rest of us, we are happy to let the words signify the same objects that other people seem to indicate. That somehow facilitates communication.

Therefore, let’s be content with the dictionary definition. But alas, in the case of that vocable “marriage” the dictionary seems to waver. There is a traditional meaning and an expanded one and we, poor users of language, are left to pick for ourselves. How? Presumably by deciding what it should mean. Sigh, we are back to that again; we simply can’t communicate.

But let’s find one of those good old thesauri. Webster’s 1913 edition, for example, is joyfully unambiguous. Marriage is the “union of man and woman.” So it used to have that definition only, how come it’s now so complicated?

Well, words change their reference; it expands or narrows according to unpredictable currents. It usually doesn’t happen because anyone wants it to happen, but for this one word it must have been different.

The concept of same sex marriage necessarily didn’t exist before someone thought it should exist. At that point the word didn’t have that meaning so for some time at least certain people pretended that it had a meaning which it clearly didn’t have. Today it’s a matter of argument whether the expanded definition has caught on sufficiently to be considered a real definition.

But why this fight over words? Reformers often fall into the trap of thinking that words are important when what they actually want to change is the social reality. The old definition of marriage could have been kept while still granting a real institutionalized protection to same sex couples. It could have called something else; “partnership”, “gay union” or “pliff”.

Words don’t matter, reality does.

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