Since Miss California's recent mumble-tastic response to Perez Hilton's question about gay nuptials, there has been a lot of chatter in the media (again) about the definition of marriage.
A recurring argument by the traditional-marriage crowd, or, as I like to call them, the Anti-Gay Relationship Orthodoxy (AGRO), is that marriage has always been defined as a union between one man and one woman. And guess what? They're right! In every dictionary I checked, marriage is primarily defined as a union between one man and one woman. What they don't say is that most words have multiple definitions, such as the words in my trusty American Heritage 3rd Edition, which additionally defines marriage as, simply, “a close union.”
This is not the only problem with the AGRO argument.
Whenever somebody asks me what the definition of marriage should be, my first response is always, “It depends on what your definition of definition is.” Are we talking about a religious definition, a legal definition or a lay definition? Because they're not always the same thing.
Take the word “mayhem.”
“Mayhem” has a different legal definition than lay. The California Penal Code defines mayhem as any act that “maliciously deprives a human being of a member of his body… or renders it useless.” However, the lay definition, which is to say, the standard dictionary definition, is less restrictive. There's no need for someone to be dismembered or maimed to satisfy the lay definition of “mayhem.” It can just mean “chaos” or “riotous havoc,” as in, “Yo, dude—it was total mayhem in the Jonas Brothers mosh pit last night!”
Now take the word “marriage.”
The differences between the religious definition of marriage and the legal and lay versions are profound: The religious definition is a sacred union between one man, one woman and an invisible man with a white beard sitting on a throne in the sky.
Not true with the lay or legal definitions. When it comes to legally recognizing marriage, there is no requirement that it be sacred or include God. As far as the lay version goes, I won't be letting that crusty old grouch into the Decker connubial bed any time soon. The Guy's Dutch ovens reek like sewage spills off the coast of Smellgium for crissake.
So, I ask again, to which definition of marriage are the AGROs referring?
If it's the religious definition of marriage, then sure, that should stand as is. The Catholic Church has every right to consider marriage as a sacred union between one man, one woman and one hairy old deity with a nuclear gastrointestinal system.
If it's a legal definition, well that's a no-brainer also. Laws and their definitions change all the time, and for good reason.
If it's the lay, or dictionary, definition you seek, well dig this: It doesn't matter what the dictionary says! Dictionaries are not the boss of us. We are the bosses of dictionaries. Because their definitions are based on how we use words in the field, so we, as a society, can define any word any way we want.
The AGROs talk about the definition of marriage as though words are set in stone and dictionaries are flawless. However, dictionaries, like bibles, are imperfect. They are written by human beings who bring their prejudices and predilections to the tome.
“The English language is changing all the time and at an increasingly dizzy pace,” says language expert Bill Bryson in his book The Mother Tongue. “In 1987 when Random House produced the second edition of its unabridged dictionary, it included 50,000 words that had not existed and 75,000 new definitions of old words.”
Point being, even if the dictionary definition of marriage had only one entry and that entry said, “Marriage is a union between a man and a woman and that's it, nobody else can get married, we really mean it now so don't even think about trying to change it or we will send bloodhounds out to track you down and eat your face”—we could still change it.
Samuel Johnson, the genius lexicographer, once wrote, “No dictionary of a living tongue can ever be perfect, since, while it is hastening toward publication, some words are budding and some are fading away.” Note Johnson's gorgeously apropos phrase “a living tongue,” which is to say that language is alive, ever-growing, ever-changing.
Johnson, incidentally, is the quintessential example of how dictionaries are subject to their authors' human failings. His magnum opus, A Dictionary of the English Language, had a myriad of problems: It contained several spelling inconsistencies. The etymologies were widely criticized. Johnson was given to fits of editorializing. “And his proofreading was strikingly careless, [as when] he defined garret as a ‘room on the highest floor of the house' and cockloft as ‘the room over the garret,'” Bryson wrote.
So please, please spare us this red-herring question of what the definition of marriage is. It doesn't matter. What matters is what it should be and what it should be is this: “A union between any two (or more) people who love each other (or not) and want to be bound together for life (or at least a few months) because, you know, it's their business, so butt out or we will release the hounds to bite off your face!”