Marriage in the AHD

My dictionary of choice, for reasons I won’t go into now, is the American Heritage Dictionary. In fact, the first dictionary I ever purchased was the third edition of the American Heritage College Dictionary (I was in college, after all). The one I have at home now is the fourth edition. (For even in the age of the internet, I do keep a hardback dictionary in the house.)

Dictionaries must publish new editions every so often to keep up with changes in contemporary language, as the job of the dictionary is to tell us the meaning of words, and the meaning of words is determined largely by how they are being used and understood. The newly released fifth edition of the AHD, copyright 2020, includes the following as the first definition of marriage: “A legal union between two persons that confers certain privileges and entails certain obligations of each person to the other, formerly restricted in the United States to a union between a woman and a man.”

This updated definition assumes, of course, that marriage can be a legal union between any two adult persons, regardless of the sex of each. This isn’t true, but I am not writing to complain about that aspect of the given definition. Indeed, such a definition is all the AHD could give, since its job is not so much to be the definer of words as to report to us the definitions that are given to words by usage, culture, and contemporary understanding and consensus—things the AHD has little control over. My complaint only concerns the second part: “formerly restricted in the United States to a union between a woman and a man.”

It seems too clear to me that this was written by someone who wanted to make normal marriage seem like an arbitrary construct, even an aberration, and some relatively recent product of American prejudices. The truth is that marriage has been understood to be (not restricted to) the union between a woman and a man throughout all of human history (not merely formerly) across every civilization (not just the United States) for the, gee-whiz!, obvious reason that the human race comprises females and males and that one of each is needed to produce offspring.

The term restricted is used purposely to evoke a feeling that this former condition was unnecessary and imposed. But restricted is not the right term (and I suspect the author knows this and uses it anyway). There was no restriction on marriage as suggested. It is not the case that formerly a marriage between two men was a prohibited or taboo or unacceptable or legally unrecognized marriage. Rather, it is the case that such a union wasn’t a marriage. There is a big difference. A thing is always restricted to being itself, but that isn’t really a restriction.

The fourth edition of the American Heritage College Dictionary was published in 2007. It defines marriage as “the legal union between a man and a woman as husband and wife.” This definition was simple, and, for what it’s worth, was both an accurate articulation of how the word marriage was used by people in general, and an accurate definition of marriage. (The new definition is the former only.) But notice that there is nothing here about “currently restricted in the United States to a union between a woman and a man.” Why? Because the woman–man pairing that defined the marriage arrangement was not a restriction; it was marriage itself, that is all.

To give an illustration, the definition of triangle is the same in both the fourth and fifth editions of the AHD: “The plane figure formed by connecting three points not in a straight line by straight line segments; a three-sided polygon.” The three-sidedness of a triangle is not described here a restriction. Why not? Because any polygon having more than three sides is simply not a triangle. It is not a matter of a restriction imposed on triangles; it is a matter of what a triangle is. This is likewise true of marriage, as it relates to its gender-inclusiveness. A marriage is a union of two people because there are two genders, and in a marriage the two gender counterparts come together. What else could marriage be? If there were only one kind of human being, a drone, marriage would not exist. Why would it? A gender-exclusive relationship has never had nor can ever have any basis for being referred to as a marriage.

As another illustration, let us consider the definition of adult. Adult is defined in the AHD as “one who has attained maturity or legal age.” Like marriage, adulthood is not an invention of culture. Rather, it is something presented to culture by nature that culture then formalizes by law or custom. Let’s say a progressive movement convinced us that adulthood as currently defined is disenfranchising and inequitable and should be redefined to include all people, regardless of age. The next edition of the AHD might then say something like the following under the entry for adult: “A person. Formerly restricted in the United States to someone who had lived at least a certain amount of time.” You can see the absurdity of tacking on the “formerly restricted to” clause, even if the definition accepted by society and law changed. For even if we as a society were to deem all people legal adults, the former understanding that only grown-ups were adults would not ever have been a restriction, since previously, it was understood as the very meaning of adult.

Again, I am not criticizing the AHD for misdefining marriage to include gender-exclusive couples (the blame for that confusion lies elsewhere). I am criticizing its subtle use of language to imply, falsely, that our understanding of marriage had been discretionary—and perhaps irrational—all along.

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