Last fall, California voters were given an opportunity to decide whether to expand the traditional definition of marriage to include those in a same-sex relationship. The measure known as Proposition 8 proposed to add this language to the California State Constitution: “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”
Prop 8 sparked a fierce debate as millions of dollars were spent to lobby both sides of the issue. If you lived in the Golden State, you virtually couldn’t turn on the TV, listen to the radio, or read a newspaper without encountering some aspect of the hotly contested topic. When the ballots were counted, Californians voted “Yes” to preserve traditional marriage.
Meanwhile, without fanfare, debate, or an opportunity for the public to weigh in on the issue, WorldNetDaly.com reports a leading dictionary company, Merriam-Webster, single-handedly redefined marriage in their current online edition. The new definition reads: “(1) The state of being united to a person of the opposite sex as husband or wife in a consensual and contractual relationship recognized by law; (2) the state of being united to a person of the same sex in a relationship like that of a traditional marriage <same-sex marriage>.”
Now, compare that to Webster’s definition of marriage from their 1913 edition of the dictionary: “The act of marrying, or the state of being married; legal union of a man and a woman for life, as husband and wife; wedlock; matrimony.” Ironically, this early edition included a reference to the King James version of Hebrews 13:4 which says, “Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge.” They also cited Matthew 22:2, “The kingdom of heaven is like unto a certain king, which made a marriage for his son.”
Scripture aside, did you notice what’s missing in Merriam-Webster’s newfangled version of marriage? In addition to expanding the meaning of marriage, their latest definition dropped two key words: “for life.” In other words, Merriam-Webster has stripped a vital aspect of the covenant of marriage, namely, permanence. Interestingly, as recently as 1992, Webster’s Comprehensive Dictionary defined marriage as “the institution under which a man and a woman become legally united on a permanent basis” [emphasis added].
According to a report in WorldNetDaily.com, associate editor Kory Stamper of the popular dictionary company explained the reasoning behind this change to one constituent. Stamper said, “In recent years, this new sense of ‘marriage’ has appeared frequently and consistently throughout a broad spectrum of carefully edited publications, and is often used in phrases such as ‘same-sex marriage’ and ‘gay marriage’ by proponents and opponents alike. Its inclusion was a simple matter of providing our readers with accurate information about all of the word’s current uses.”
Granted, the meaning of a word can change with time. For example, the word “gay” (which today is frequently associated with those in the homosexual community) was defined in 1913 by Webster as “(1) Excited with merriment; manifesting sportiveness or delight; inspiring delight; livery; merry. (2) Brilliant in colors; splendid; fine, richly dressed. (3) Loose; dissipated; lewd.”
There’s no mention of gay as in “homosexual.” In fact, there isn’t even a definition of the word “homosexual” in that early edition of Webster’s Dictionary. Yes, language usage changes with time. As I see it, here’s the larger question: is the Merriam-Webster company reflecting culture? Or, are they shaping culture by offering this redefinition of the word?
Overwhelmingly, the public has rejected the idea of so-called same-sex marriage. Whenever the matter has been put on the ballot, Americans have voted to preserve the traditional institution and definition of marriage. As such, it strikes me that this change by Merriam-Webster isn’t a small matter. What do you think?