The meaning of “marriage”, I was surprised (and disappointed) to learn that someone whose views I typically find to be progressive and open-minded planned to vote “No” in a same-sex postal vote “survey” in Australia.

There are many reasons why people oppose same-sex marriage, although one of the main arguments cited by this person was that the definition of marriage is “a union between a husband and a wife”. Unfortunately, this traditional viewpoint is common.

In case you haven’t already guessed, I am personally in favor of same-sex marriage. My position is mostly about achieving equality. However, as far as the “definition of marriage” argument is concerned, I think there’s a valid semantic argument as to why a “marriage” can be a union between any two people.

Years ago, in a discussion with my Professor, I mentioned that a particular word (the exact word we discussed escapes me now) couldn’t have a particular meaning.

“Why not? Of course it can,” he argued.

I then realized that meaning is not static and that words can change meaning. This is not to say that meaning can change willy nilly, but that it can happen over time by way of several different processes of semantic change. This is a kind of evolution for word meanings.

Semantic broadening is when a meaning with a strict sense widens to include more than it meant before. For example, dog once meant a specific breed while now the word refers to all breeds. This can happen with brand names too, such as Kleenex which means “tissues” and Playdough which can refer to any moldable, colored clay for children.

There are other interesting types of semantic change. In what is known as semantic narrowing, girl once meant “a child or young person of either sex” while wife meant “a woman” rather than specifically “a married woman.”

By the process of semantic shift, words can change their meaning entirely. For example, awful once meant “awe-inspiring”, silly meant “happy” in Old English, while gay used to mean “full of joy; merry.” There are countless examples of semantic shift and it’s amazing to see how drastically meaning changes over time.

By way of semantic broadening, marriage could easily broaden to mean “a union between two people.” In fact, marriage has had many different meanings over the centuries. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word first appeared c.1300, at which time it meant “the action of marrying, entry into wedlock.” A 14C meaning of marriage was “a union of a man and woman for life by marriage.” Today, divorce rates show that about 50% of modern couples don’t hold the “for life” part to be sacred, so why also cling to an outdated meaning of the two people who are involved in that union?

A common belief is that the original meaning of a word is somehow its true meaning. But as we can see, meaning is in a constant state of flux. Language is free to change, even if some people don’t want that change. But change happens anyway, just as most analysts predict the vote will result in a “yes” verdict.

In the end, saying that marriage means “a union between a man and a woman” isn’t a very convincing argument against same-sex marriage.

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Karen Stollznow

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Stollznow is a linguist with a background in history and anthropology, and is the author of the best-selling book God Bless America. Her other titles include Hits & Mrs., Language Myths, Mysteries and Magic and Haunting America. Her forthcoming books include Missed Conceptions and Not What The Doctor Ordered.

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