We Can't Redefine Marriage? The Oxford English Dictionary Just Did

Many opponents of marriage equality argue that marriage is defined as a union between one man and one woman, and that no power is entitled or enabled to change that definition.  In a fantastic show of support with marriage equality movements, the Oxford English Dictionary, the most distinguished English-language dictionary, plans to amend its definition of the word marriage.

Following a recent vote in the English parliament to allow same-sex unions, the Oxford University Press expressed its willingness to change the definition. Said its spokeswoman, “We continually monitor the words in our dictionaries, paying particular to those words whose usage is shifting, so yes, this will happen with marriage.”  

The former definition, however, will not be completely expunged. One feature of the OED is its documentation of past meanings of words, which means that the one-man-one-woman definition of marriage will continue to grace its pages. Currently the definition reads, “The condition of being a husband or wife; the relation between persons married to each other,” with a footnote stating, “The term is now sometimes used with reference to long-term relationships between partners of the same sex.” The term gay marriage has its own reference. However, as the term marriage is increasingly used to reference to all marriages, the entry will change.

A similar transition occurred in France, which also recently passed national marriage equality legislation, referred to in France as le mariage pour tous. Larousse, one of the largest French dictionaries, announced its decision to adjust its definition of marriage in the 2014 edition before the French law even passed, despite the objections of some parliamentarians  The definition now reads, “The solemn act by which a man and a woman (or, in certain countries, two persons of the same sex) establish between themselves a union of which the conditions, effects, and dissolution are regulated by the civil law (civil marriage) or by religious law (religious marriage).”

Thus, it seems, despite the insistence of such American notables as the Family Research Council, Michele Bachmann, and several American bishops, the definition of marriage can be changed. Furthermore, it already has.

For those interested in changing other definitions of marriage, there is a Change.org petition to change the marriage listing on Dictionary.com.

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