Oxford redefines marriage

By James Keller

Marriage n. 1 the legal or religious union of a man or a woman

The above definition currently sits, and has sat for quite some time, in the Canadian Oxford English Dictionary. It is lauded by those determined to preserve the current definition of marriage, pointed to as proof the institution should be limited to heterosexual, opposite sex couples. It is also a definition that stands as an obstacle, if only a symbolic one, for those trying to push for legal and societal changes in the way we define marriage.

All of this may change if the Canadian Oxford English Dictionary changes its definition of marriage as planned it its 2004 edition. The new entry will read: "The legal or religious union of two people." This may seem a minor change, but it is one that can potentially have major consequences in the marriage debate.

This revision is important for two reasons.

First, it smacks in the face of the tried and true "dictionary argument." Many people, when arguing the sanctity of marriage, point to the dictionary as an authoritative source on the issue. So long as the definition limits the institution to a man and a woman, the argument goes, there really isn’t much else to say on the matter. It is, after all, in the dictionary. This change will obviously cast a dark shadow of illegitimacy over this already weak argument. At least in Canada, this will no longer apply (its American counterpart will not be changing its definition).

Second, and most important, the change should serve as an indication of how Canadian society is changing. Justifying the switch, which will be published next fall, Editor-in-Chief Katherine Barber said, "dictionaries just reflect what the actual reality is. If the law changes or society changes, or something happens where the word marriage comes to apply to same-sex unions, we just change the definition."

The decision was specifically in reaction to the June 10 decision by the Ontario Court of Appeal, rewriting the definition of marriage, at least in that province.

What many people fail to realize, and what this example clearly shows, is that the English language is not static, it’s dynamic and constantly evolving. So-called authorities on language, like the Oxford Dictionary, serve simply to reflect societies common usage of a word, not create their own.

The opponents of same-sex marriage point to the written definition in error-if a dictionary had defined marriage as anything but a union between a man and a women before just recently, it would have simply been wrong. But now, as society-and more importantly as legislation-changes the usage of this all-important word, we must take notice and change along with it.

Some will ignore the switch. They may argue that, whatever the recorded definition, the religious definition-and indeed the concept-will stay the same. However, this word has become an important symbolic nest egg for both sides. On some fronts, the only thing separating the two sides is this eight-letter word. The proponents of same-sex marriage want the recognition and status that comes with the label "married," while many opponents are happy to offer the legal benefits and responsibilities through a "civil union," so long as we don’t call it "marriage."

Whether opponents of the concept admit it or not, society is changing, and it will continue to change despite their best efforts. A simple dictionary definition isn’t the catalyst for such a change, but rather a reflection of it-truly a sign of things to come.

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