Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the federal government’s attempt to define marriage as being between one man and one woman, but the exact definition of marriage -- and all the semantic arguments that go along with it -- is still far from settled.
The Defense of Marriage Act ruling aside, dictionary editors have for several years understood that attempts to define marriage can be both incomplete and controversial. Public opinion has shifted rapidly, with gay marriage in America gaining widespread acceptance in a relatively short time. But a universally agreed-upon definition remains frustratingly elusive.
In 2009, when Merriam-Webster attempted to reflect changing attitudes by changing its entry for marriage, it ended up pleasing no one. The dictionary’s editors kept the original definition, which defines the word as “the state of being united to a person of the opposite sex as husband or wife.”
Then it added a second definition, "the state of being united to a person of the same sex in a relationship like that of a traditional marriage.”
Not surprisingly, the change set off conservative websites such as World Net Daily, which cited, of all people, an angry YouTube user who said he was “shocked” to see the change, and noted that the same-sex definition wasn’t part of the entry in 1992.
Conversely, the UC Berkeley linguist Geoff Nunberg was also unsatisfied with MW’s entry, calling it a “train wreck” in an April report on NPR, mainly as it seems to relegate same-sex unions to a second class. In its defense, MW said it was merely reflecting usage and that it had no political agenda.
Online dictionaries aren’t immune from this controversy. Last year, a petition launched on Change.org -- signed by more than 110,000 people -- called on Dictionary.com to update its entry for the word. The website’s first definition merely calls marriage a “socially sanctioned union of persons who commit to one another.” But it divides that definition up into subcategories -- the first of which mentions a man and a woman, and the second of which mentions partners of the same gender. More than a year later, the entry remains unchanged.
In the meantime, some activists aren’t waiting for dictionary editors to update their entries. Hack Marriage, anonymous group of San Francisco activists, are taking matters into their own hands, going around to libraries and book retailers and retrofitting dictionaries with their own updated definition -- printed on small stickers that are placed over the original entry. In a Vimeo video posted on its Tumblr page, the group encourages other people to do the same. “Hack your own dictionaries,” it says, offering a link though which users can download and print their own stickers.
The problem is, activists are not lexicologists, and Hack Marriage’s well-intentioned definition of “marriage” still leaves much to be desired:
Marriage: n. 1. The formal union of two people, by which they become partners for life.
The entry is a riff on the definition in the Oxford American Dictionary, which defines marriage as “the formal union of a man and woman by which they become husband and wife.” As wife rhymes with life, it’s a noble effort, but even with the U.S. divorce rate ticking downward since the 1980s, it’s a little presumptuous to assume that all married couples will stay partners for life.
In the end, maybe Wikipedia says it best: “Marriage (also called matrimony or wedlock) is a social union or legal contract between people called spouses that establishes rights and obligations between the spouses, between the spouses and their children, and between the spouses and their in-laws.”
It’s a little clunky, but at least it’s thorough. Either way, as the issue is not likely to be settled any time soon, check out the Hack Marriage video below. But deface dictionaries at your own risk.