Seven Hang-Ups in the Language of Gay Rights

The word "marriage," as John P. Marquand might have said, is a damnably serious business—particularly when it comes to America's cultural grapple over homosexuality.

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A supporter of same-sex marriage wears a rainbow flag in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, March 26, 2013.

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Marriage, as John P. Marquand might have said, is a damnably serious business—particularly among gay rights activists and same-sex marriage opponents. Today, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments about the legal definition of “marriage,” one of many words and phrases that embody America’s long cultural grapple over homosexuality. In this week’s Wednesday Words, NewsFeed takes a look at that lexical quagmire and six others:

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For years, lexicographers have pored over the term at the center of Supreme Court proceedings today, trying to tweak dictionary entries to reflect how all people use the word, regardless of their political persuasions. “Lexicographers end up in a no-win situation, where no matter what they do, somebody’s going to have trouble with the definition,” says Ben Zimmer, linguist and executive producer at

Some dictionaries, like the historically ordered Merriam-Webster, have added a second definition for same-sex marriage and left the main entry referring to a man and a woman. Zimmer points out that some gay rights activists balk at that fix, however, feeling a second definition suggests that gay marriage is second class. Other references, like the American Heritage Dictionary, have wedged more information into a single definition: “The legal union of a man and woman as husband and wife, and in some jurisdictions, between two persons of the same sex, usually entailing legal obligations of each person to the other.”

“It’s not that the word changed,” says American Heritage dictionaries’ Executive Editor Steve Kleinedler, one of the editors who worked on the update. “It’s just that the scope broadened.” And these editorial choices matter: it’s quite possible that the Supreme Court Justices will include various dictionary definitions of marriage in their discussions or opinions about the cases they’ve heard this week.

Traditional marriage

Opponents of gay marriage are in a tricky spot when deciding whether to use the term traditional marriage. On the one hand, that language purposefully elevates heterosexual marriage as a more established, legitimate relationship. In a piece assessing journalists’ coverage of same-sex marriage battles for Columbia Journalism Review, Jennifer Vanasco highlights this point:

She uses “traditional marriage advocates” to refer to people against same-sex marriage and “gay marriage” to name the issue. “Gay marriage” and “same-sex marriage” are neutral terms. But “traditional marriage” is not. It’s a phrase used by conservatives to imply that marriage between a man and a woman has been the norm forever …

But while the appeal to tradition is an important part of the argument against legalizing gay marriage, Zimmer says, calling heterosexual marriage “traditional” undermines that position, too. “By calling it ‘traditional marriage,’ you’ve already ceded the ground that there is another kind of marriage,” he says.

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Opposite-sex marriage

Pundits are also in a pickle when deciding how to refer to a marriage between a man and a woman. “Traditional marriage” is loaded in one direction, while “opposite-sex marriage”—which is becoming a more regular phrase among journalists—has been criticized for being politicized in the other. “Kindergartners will be told that some adults choose same-sex marriage and some choose opposite-sex marriage,” Catholic League President Bill Donohue wrote in 2009. “There is no moral difference – it’s just a matter of different strokes for different folks.” Describing male-female marriages as “opposite-sex” is factually indisputable. It’s also potentially jarring, because most Americans still wouldn’t use that phrasing in casual conversation and new labels can make old institutions seem less familiar.

Marriage equality

Though this term may seem straightforward, it’s not completely neutral, even if people who use it have no intention to be slanted. In recent years, marriage equality has been successfully used by proponents of same-sex marriage to make their position harder to argue against, Zimmer says: After all, who would oppose equality? “The whole same-sex marriage debate had increasingly fallen under that rubric,” Zimmer says. The usage has become so widespread, he notes, that the phrase was the American Dialect Society’s runner-up for “Word of the Year” in 2012. Obama used the hashtag #MarriageEquality this week to express his support on Twitter for same-sex marriage.

Husband and wife

The Associated Press, which produces a definitive style guide for journalists, got in hot water last month when editors answered a question about whether writers should use the words husband and wife when referring to gay couples. In a memo, the editors wrote:

We were asked how to report about same-sex couples who call themselves “husband” and “wife.” Our view is that such terms may be used in AP stories with attribution. Generally AP uses couples or partners to describe people in civil unions or same-sex marriages.

An online firestorm ensued, with some accusing the AP of “separate but equal” linguistic treatment for same-sex spouses, and the AP eventually issued different guidance: “Regardless of sexual orientation, husband or wife is acceptable in all references to individuals in any legally recognized marriage. Spouse or partner may be used if requested.” The AP “has never had a Stylebook entry on the question” before, the editor said in a statement, attempting to explain the shifting behavior.

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Widower and widow

In recent years, the American Heritage Dictionary also updated its definitions for widow and widower. The latter, for example, now includes any man who was married and lost a spouse, rather than only those who have lost a wife. Editor Kleinedler is gay and had been married in Massachusetts by the time they updated the definition in 2009. Soon after, his husband unexpectedly died. “In the shattered aftermath of profound loss, an obsolete or incomplete definition of widower would seem an insignificant detail,” he wrote in an op-ed for the Advocate, “but all such trivial details viewed together coalesce into a constant reminder of a two-tiered, unequal system.”


Though unlikely to be uttered at the Supreme Court today, queer is an example of a rare “reclaimed word” and a reminder of how many decades gay rights have played the rope in a societal tug-of-war. A reclaimed term is one that was used as a slur but then commandeered by the group being slurred. Queer, which also means unconventional or deviating from the norm, was used as a pejorative term for gays and lesbians before being reclaimed in the 1980s. Homosexuals and gay rights advocates used it in academia and when referring to themselves, thus giving the word positive or neutral connotations to balance out the negative. “Very often it’s a project in identity politics to take these words-as-weapons and then use them for your own purposes,” Zimmer says, “to take away the offense of a word by making it your own.”

Wednesday Words is a weekly column that delves into the way we wag our tongues and wield our pens.
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