'Marriage,' The Word At Heart Of Cultural Debate

Read Ben Zimmer's Column In The Boston Globe, 'The Fight Over Defining Marriage, Literally'

In a recent column, Ben Zimmer wrote, "Is there any word currently more contested in our culture than marriage?" As the debate about same-sex marriage continues, he examines the definition of marriage and the ways advocates and opponents of same-sex unions use language to advance their positions.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

In his Sunday column in The Boston Globe, Ben Zimmer wrote: Is there any word currently more contested in our culture than marriage? As some states legalize same-sex marriage and other adopt constitutional amendments to ban it, dictionaries are changing the way they define the word and find themselves right in the middle of the debate. Should our dictionary definitions reflect what we think, or should they reflect the way words are used?

Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Joining us now is Ben Zimmer, executive producer of Visual Thesaurus and vocabulary.com. He's with us from our bureau in New York. Nice to speak with you again.

BEN ZIMMER: Hi. Thanks for having me back.

CONAN: And you wrote that a couple of important dictionaries added a second definition of marriage sometime ago.

ZIMMER: Yeah. In fact, as early as 2003, Merriam-Webster added a second definition that followed the sort of traditional meaning of uniting members of the opposite sex as husband and wife and then included a secondary sense of the state of being united to a person of the same-sex in a relationship like that of a traditional marriage. That was back in 2003. And pretty much all of the major English dictionaries have followed suit over the past decade or so.

CONAN: And the first reaction was from those who said, wait a minute, that's not the definition of marriage. That second definition is wrong. A marriage is between one man and one woman.

ZIMMER: That's true. Even though that was in Merriam-Webster's dictionary from 2003, it actually took till 2009 until certain conservative groups realized that that had been changed in the dictionary. And there was a real firestorm of criticism - how dare the dictionary take it upon itself to resolve this argument over whether the term marriage should apply to same-sex unions or if it should just have this traditional sense. And so the original dispute over this was that dictionaries were being too liberal somehow in allowing this as a secondary sense of the word marriage.

CONAN: And then there's another newer dispute. Secondary?

ZIMMER: That's right. The lexicographers really can't win because more recently they've been attacked from the other side of the issue by proponents of same-sex marriage who find that definition in Merriam-Webster and elsewhere. There's a petition currently about the definition that appears on the online dictionary, dictionary.com, a very popular website that has a similar definition where it has the one man, one woman sense and then secondarily the same-sex marriage sense.

The petition, in this case, says that this is somehow relegating same-sex marriage to secondary status by the fact that it's not all just listed together in one gender-neutral definition. The fact that it's differentiated in this way is a cause for concern on the other side of the issue.

CONAN: Well, lexicographers, at least in some dictionaries, explain wait a minute, we come upon our definitions sequentially as they occur. These are, you know, chronological.

ZIMMER: Well, different dictionaries have different ways of organizing their definitions. Merriam-Webster does use that historical ordering, so it makes sense for them to show how this word has evolved. So you have this traditional meaning and then sort of chronologically comes the next one. Random House, for instance, which supplies many of the definitions that are used on dictionary.com, the target of this new petition, organizes entries so that what meanings are most frequently encountered come first, and then you get to more peripheral meanings.

And even though that's not historical, it's still - there's a rationale behind it that would explain why the traditional marriage between a man and woman would be considered in the first part of the definition, followed by the extension of this sense to same-sex marriage.

CONAN: And then there's the argument that, wait a minute, dictionaries are not supposed to reflect what advocates of any argument want the word to mean. They should reflect the way the words are actually used in conversation.

ZIMMER: Indeed. And what we find with this contentious word marriage is that regardless of what you think about same-sex marriage, that expression same-sex marriage or gay marriage, that gets used across the political spectrum even by people who don't think there should be legal protection or legal standing for same-sex marriage. Someone like Rick Santorum, for instance, might complain about same-sex marriage, but he uses that word marriage to label what he complains about. So there has been kind of a transformation, I think, across the political spectrum, and it would be a little ridiculous for lexicographers not to reflect what's going on in usage to simply ignore this new change in usage.

CONAN: And at the same time, he does have a point in that most people or many people still use the word marriage in that traditional sense. There are two definitions.

ZIMMER: That's true. I mean, but, again, this is how the dictionary has become a kind of political football where people look at the dictionary definition with their own ideological point of view about the matter. And if it doesn't accord exactly with their idea of how marriage should be defined, then they'll find grounds for complaint. But, again, the lexicographers are really trying to pin down the way people now are using it in real conversation, real texts, and that's what they're basing their definitions on.

CONAN: And it was interesting, in your piece, you said - you noted that in the - two centuries ago, there were other definitions of marriage that are no longer in the dictionary.

ZIMMER: That's true. I mean, there's - some have said that, well, the definition of marriage simply hasn't changed over centuries or millennia even. But if you look through historical dictionaries, you can see interesting reflections of their time period. So, for instance, The Century Dictionary, which is a great American dictionary that was compiled in the late 19th century, made room in its definition of marriage to also refer to plural marriage which had explained - would apply especially to the kind of polygamy existing among the Mormons without the accompaniment of the harem of oriental countries, each wife usually living in a separate house.

You know, that was something that was very specific to the American scene and describing certain practices in certain parts of the country which obviously are no longer around. And so the social realities of marriage have dictated the way that it's been defined, and that's certainly what's happening today.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. Our guest is Ben Zimmer, language columnist for The Boston Globe and executive producer, Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Should dictionary definitions reflect our aspirations or our usage? Let's start with Matt, and Matt's on the line with us from Denver.

MATT: Hi. Thank you for having me on.

CONAN: Go ahead please.

MATT: I wanted to ask your guest to address it from kind of a linguistic point of view. I'm a Spanish student. I'm studying towards a Spanish minor. My understanding is that a dictionary is really supposed to be a tool to learn a language. I mean, that's how we used it when I was in elementary school and a little kid. And how - I agree with your point that it's - it shouldn't be used as a tool of advocacy. And how - I would like just your guest to address how it has strayed from being just a purely educational tool. Every Spanish dictionary I use has outlined how a word can be used in several different contexts and how the usage is, but it never really touches on opinions ever.

ZIMMER: Well, that's interesting question. I mean, dictionaries obviously are used for many different purposes, including to learn the language. And as an educational tool, one could say that it's important to reflect the way that the word is used in the real world. So that if it ignored, for instance, the reality of the word marriage being used in same-sex context, for instance, that would not be a very good educational tool because if a language learner encountered that, they might be confused by a dictionary definition that was too restrictive.

And on the other hand, if you just sort of glossed over the fact that we have this sort of traditional sense that has been the case historically and a more modern extension of that in certain jurisdictions to same-sex couples, then that would also be an oversight by the lexicographers. So there are a lot of criteria and a lot of concerns that dictionary makers are juggling when they're trying to fit all of this crucial information into a compact dictionary entry. It can be a real challenge, especially with something as highly politicized as the word marriage. And they really are just looking for a compact way to express that that will describe the way that the word is really used in the world.

CONAN: Hmm. Matt, thanks very much.

MATT: Thank you.

CONAN: Do lexicographers have that kind of power?

ZIMMER: It's interesting. Both sides of this argument seem to give lexicographers an awful lot of power and more power, I think, than the lexicographers themselves would ascribe to themselves. The idea that the dictionary has some sort of defining authority for the way that we think about these things, like marriage, rather than simply just reflecting popular usage we find on both sides of the dispute. And while on the one hand, that's a bit of a naive point of view to give dictionary so much power, on the other hand, it does - actually the dictionary of, you know, dictionaries from various publishers do very often serve as a kind of umpire when we're trying to figure out the meaning of a word.

And even judges in court cases will very often consult dictionaries to find out the so-called ordinary meanings of words that might not be defined by statutes that they're arguing over.

CONAN: We're talking with Ben Zimmer of The Boston Globe and Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go to Nicole(ph). Nicole with us from Oakland.

NICOLE: Hi. I just - thank you for introducing everyone to this very important issue. I think it's wonderful that dictionaries are broadening the definition of marriage because in so many states marriage is now legal between same-sex people. I also am a public school teacher in California, and I think many people don't know that all California public school teachers have to swear an oath of allegiance to the California State Constitution, promising to uphold Prop 8 and the California Constitution without mental reservation.

So if you're a gay and lesbian teacher, you have to promise to uphold Prop 8 without mental reservation or you're not allowed to teach in the public schools. So I'm hoping that the Supreme Court challenge will get rid of Prop 8 so that gay and lesbian teachers can teach in public schools without having to swear allegiance to the California Constitution which includes Prop 8.

CONAN: And, Nicole, I...

NICOLE: And I'm hoping by checking the definitions that...

CONAN: I hear your passion and I hear your advocacy, but thanks, that's not really what we're talking about today. I understand your position, but thanks very much. Appreciate the phone call. And the question is - I do gather from time to time, Ben Zimmer, as you mentioned, the courts do cite dictionary definitions.

ZIMMER: It's true. Again, that tends to happen if there's a word that's under dispute that isn't defined by a statute. So, for instance, the Defense of Marriage Act, that actually gives a definition on the federal level that marriage is between a man and a woman. But there have been state cases. For instance, there was a case before the Rhode Island Supreme Court a few years ago. There was a same-sex couple that had been married in Massachusetts, wanted to get divorced Rhode Island. And the question was did the family court in Rhode Island have jurisdiction over this couple since Rhode Island itself didn't have same-sex marriages on the books, and marriage was not actually defined in the statute that set up the family court there?

And so what the Rhode Island Supreme Court did is they went back to look at dictionary definitions of the word marriage from 1961 when this, you know, the family court was originally set up in Rhode Island. All the dictionaries agreed that marriage is just between one man and one woman, so they said, well, that's what the dictionaries said. That's what the ordinary meaning of the word marriage was at the time. So the family court in Rhode Island doesn't have any jurisdiction over this couple. So there were cases like that where dictionary definitions really actually do end up having a kind of legal import.

CONAN: And are there any - this is the cause of the day, but are there any other words that you can recollect that have become so politicized where definitions have been battered around?

ZIMMER: Well, marriage is certainly a highly charged one. But, I mean, it can come down to other words in our vocabulary too. So for instance, one recent case between AT&T and FCC went up to the U.S. Supreme Court, and it was a battle over whether personal privacy should apply to corporations like AT&T that - who was trying to get - they were trying to get out of out of this Freedom of Information Act request. And since corporations can be identified as persons under the law, does that mean that personal privacy can also apply to them?

And so the Supreme Court ruling on that, which is a unanimous decision, ended up looking at that word personal, the adjective, and there's some sort of grammatical imperative that says just because corporations are persons then this adjective personal should also apply to them. And they decided no. Based on looking at the way the word personal is used in real usage, it's about human beings and not about corporations. And so they did consult dictionaries and other collections of text in order to figure that out.

CONAN: So lexicographers are, despite their humility, they do have power.

ZIMMER: They do have some power even if sometimes they would disown that power and say, well, we're just humble scribes doing our dredge work compiling the dictionary.

CONAN: Ink-stained wretches, yes.

ZIMMER: Yes.

CONAN: And so there is an effort to be current but not to be ahead.

ZIMMER: That's true. I mean, again, the idea is not to promote some sort of ideological agenda and to reflect usage as it is developing. And in a case like marriage, obviously, over the past decades, things have changed pretty rapidly, not just in the United States but in other countries. I believe there are 10 countries that allow same-sex marriage nationwide, and we have various jurisdictions now in the United States that allow it. And so because the reality of the situation is changing, that means that dictionaries have to catch up and reflects that as best as they can.

CONAN: And since technology is changing as well, since it's now much easier to make a change, you don't have to publish a whole new book, you can do it online for most dictionaries. I assume that these battles are happening more often.

ZIMMER: That's a good point. And, in fact, dictionary makers are actually responding more quickly, I think, because they can make changes online. So for instance, the American Heritage Dictionary came out with a new edition of their dictionary late last year, and there were certain complaints about one word, audism, A-U-D-I-S-M, which they defined as discrimination or prejudice against people based on the fact that their ability to hear is impaired or absent.

There was a deaf author who blogged about this and pointed out some flaws in that definition and suggested a rewording. And, in fact, the American Heritage Dictionary editors responded to that and said, yes, you do have a point there. They rephrased it to refer to people who are deaf or hard of hearing. And so occasionally, this does happen where a kind of well-reasoned argument can affect the way that lexicographers might define words.

CONAN: Ben Zimmer, thanks very much for your time.

ZIMMER: Oh, thank you so much.

CONAN: Ben Zimmer, a columnist for the Boston Globe and executive producer of Visual Thesaurus and vocabulary.com. He joined us from our bureau in New York. You can find a link to his column at our website, npr.org. Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here. We'll see you again on Monday. Have a great weekend. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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