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Shifted meanings: marriage

Last week New York became the sixth state in the US (and the largest so far) to pass legislation that would allow same-sex marriage. The law was promptly signed by the Governor, and should be in effect within the month.

It is fairly common knowledge that the word gay has changed its meaning over the course of the last 100 years; it had a long history as an adjective meaning (among other things) ‘carefree’, prior to taking on the additional meaning of ‘homosexual’ in the early twentieth century. The OED records 20 senses of the adjective alone. As a phenomenon, this is unsurprising. Words change their meaning, and as this happens, we update our dictionary entries to reflect this change. The word safe, for example, developed a new sense from the 1970s onwards meaning “excellent”. For an even older example, consider the word meat which in the time of Old English meant food in general and only developed the sense of “the flesh of an animal” in the early 1300s, according to the OED.

The meaning of marriage has likewise shifted. Although the first definition found in Oxford Dictionaries Online is for a union between a man and a woman, there is also an entry for a formal same-sex union.  It is important to note that no dictionary entry tells you how a word should be used; rather it tells you how a word is currently used. In other words, dictionaries are generally apolitical entities – the people who compile them really do not (and indeed cannot) allow their feelings on whether same-sex marriage should or should not be allowed to influence whether or not they think that word should be in the dictionary. As always, evidence is the key, and the evidence shows a definite move towards using the word marriage to describe a same-sex union which has been formalized with a civil partnership.  Interestingly, the Oxford English Corpus shows that the word marriage is often modified by terms like same-sex, gay, homosexual and heterosexual. While it seems likely that for the near future the addition of such adjectives will remain, it also seems quite possible that at some point it will no longer be necessary to clarify what kind of union is under discussion, and the various forms of marriage will simply be referred to as ‘marriage’. Time and evidence will tell.