The Many Definitions of Marriage

Today's Supreme Court ruling nixed a federal definition. But there are plenty left

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American University students Sharon Burk (L) and Mollie Wagoner (R) embrace after hearing that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional at the Supreme Court, June 26, 2013 in Washington, DC.

The government’s breakdown of federal laws — better known as the U.S. Code — begins with definitions. The very first section of the very first chapter explains that the word insane shall include “every idiot, insane person and person non compos mentis.” The sixth section makes it clear that products of American fisheries shall not include any “fresh or frozen fish steaks” produced in a foreign country’s waters. Today, the Supreme Court struck down the seventh section, decreeing that the federal government’s definition of marriage is unconstitutional. So which definitions matter now? That’s both a legal and cultural question.

This is how the now out-of-favor definition has read since the Defense of Marriage Act became law in 1996:

In determining the meaning of any Act of Congress, or of any ruling, regulation, or interpretation of the various administrative bureaus and agencies of the United States, the word “marriage” means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word “spouse” refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.

That definition, Justice Anthony Kennedy points out in the Court’s majority opinion, has affected the execution of more than 1,000 federal laws for more than 16 years. Yet the majority argues that the federal government had little business defining that word in the first place. “By history and tradition the definition and regulation of marriage,” Kennedy writes, “has been treated as being within the authority and realm of the separate States.”

States’ definitions certainly matter; 36 define marriage as a union between a man and a woman by amendment or statute, using what the dissenting Justices call the “traditional definition.” The District of Columbia and 12 states that allow same-sex marriage do not use such restrictive language, of course. (Check out this map from the Pew Research Center to see how it all breaks down.) One remaining question is how those definitions are going to stack up against one another, should they come into conflict in the absence of a federal one. Dissenting, Justice Antonin Scalia provides a hypothetical:

Imagine a pair of women who marry in Albany and then move to Alabama, which does not “recognize as valid any marriage of parties of the same sex.” When the couple files their next federal tax return, may it be a joint one? Which State’s law controls, for federal-law purposes: their State of celebration (which recognizes the marriage) or their State of domicile (which does not)?

The bigger point is that, legally, today’s chapter in definitions is not the end of the story. Still, the plaintiffs celebrated the Court’s opinion as a linguistic triumph. Speaking by the Supreme Court after the decision came down, Paul Katami, one of the plaintiffs, said he was looking forward to using the words marriage and husband. “Those words do matter. They are important,” he said. “If they weren’t important we wouldn’t be standing here today.”

Those words are important in dictionary definitions, too. Granted, dictionaries don’t confer benefits or control estate taxes, but they are a fundamental history of English-speaking people. Lexicographers are sensitive to societal shifts, and they’ve handed the gay rights community triumphs before today—not because they’re political but because their job is to reflect how people are using words, and many Americans have started using marriage in a broader way. The American Heritage Dictionary updated their definition in 2009 to read as follows: “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.”

Other dictionaries, like Merriam-Webster in 2003, added a second sense: “the state of being united to a person of the same sex in a relationship like that of a traditional marriage.” Some gay rights supporters have taken offense at this tack. A petition that has 117,697 signatures as of this writing, accuses of giving same-sex marriages the “brush off” in an additional “ blurb” and advocates for a single, orientation-neutral definition centered on “love and commitment.”

Though a second sense may feel second class, some dictionaries are limited by their own rules. References like Merriam-Webster are historical, meaning they order definitions as they have been used throughout history. That’s why the first definition of gay, for example, is still “happily excited” and “homosexual” is the fourth. If people in colonial times had used marriage to mean “the state of eating corn-on-the-cob” that would be at the top of the list.

Presumably gay rights supporters are too busy celebrating today to worry much about the nature of historically ordered dictionaries. Writing about the evolution of the word marriage, Justice Kennedy acknowledges how much the definition matters to people on all sides—and suggests that more inclusive language is a revelation, one that more states may have in coming years. “For marriage between a man and a woman no doubt had been thought of by most people as essential to the very definition of that term,” he writes. “That belief, for many who long have held it, became even more urgent, more cherished when challenged. For others, however, came the beginnings of a new perspective, a new insight.”

This is an edition of Wednesday Words, NewsFeed’s weekly feature on language. For the previous post, click here.