When did “Marriage” stop meaning what it means?

Years ago I worked with a German sister, deeply intelligent and one of the holiest people I have ever met. We were talking about nuances of meaning in a German sentence one day and, as an aside, she explained how dictionary entries were changed in East Germany to reflect a different mindset.

Change the meanings of words and you slowly change what people think. This is why I loathe what has been done to the word “gay”.

Dictionaries are important tools for revealing and also shaping thought.  In the past, dictionaries were prescriptive in their approach to the meanings of words.  Then there came a tectonic shift in theory of dictionaries, and they became descriptive.

I wonder if dictionaries might not be drifting back to a more prescriptive approach.

Now I read that the touchstone of British English has changed a dictionary entry.

From the National Organization for Marriage:

Oxford English Dictionary Alters Definition of ‘Marriage’

Following Parliament’s legalization of same-sex marriage on July 17 (despite fierce opposition from Tory MPs and grassroots members), the Oxford English Dictionary is changing the definition of the word “marriage”. According to the Daily Mail:

Language experts at the Oxford English Dictionary said the definition did not change overnight but they will monitor how the word marriage changes over the next year.

As it stands, OxfordDictionaries.com defines marriage as being a ‘formal union of a man and a woman, typically as recognised by law, by which they become husband and wife.’

In a reference, it says marriage could also be ‘(in some jurisdictions) a union between partners of the same sex’.

By the way, some of you might be interested in the book: The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. incredulous says:

    Surely your citation if for elucidation only and in no way is an editorial comment on the OED in the guise of a citation… ;)

  2. Charliebird says:

    Just wanted to be certain that you heard about the statement of the Russian Patriarch Kirill on “gay marriage”: http://www.lifesitenews.com/news/gay-marriage-a-sign-of-the-apocalypse-russian-patriarch

    A sign of the apocalypse! We need strong words like these…

  3. Legisperitus says:

    The world as will and representation. It’s true totalitarianism when the engines of the State are put to the use of forcibly redefining words against the consentient definition of the people throughout time.

    One could argue, though, that “marriage” started to mean something other then it means back in 1930 (Lambeth Conference), or even with Henry VIII. It’s been a long decline, and clearly it’s a symptom of how debased our society’s idea of marriage already was, that people could seriously entertain the absurd notion that it could exist between two people of the same sex.

  4. Supertradmum says:

    The Telegraph has an article, linked on my blog, concerning the Hindus being warned to drop registry marriages. Things are happening fast.

    As to language, this was the genius of Hitler, and for years after WWII, German poets and novelists wondered how they could use normal words, such as solution or vermin. The German language was changed forever. So too, will our English, French, Spanish, Portuguese languages suffer from the re-definitions of sacred words, such as marriage.

    As Thomas Mann stated, the destination of communism and fascism is tyranny and he had to move to America to write.

    So too, we are witnessing the destruction of language, which was also noted by the poet David Jones, my dissertation subject, for English. Language follows thinking and historical references. Once both are gone, the language disintegrates. Love know means lust, marriage means any sexual union, civil rights means giving rights to sin, which has no rights.

    The death of the West can be judged by the ruination of defining terms according to natural law and God’s revealed law.

    BTW, the same thing has happened in the Catholic Encyclopaedia and in the Fathers of the Church series from Catholic U. I noticed in 2007, with the new version, that the footnotes contained modernist interpretations of the writings in several of the books in the series. These are all attempts at re-definitions and ergo, destruction of theological and philosophical language and Church teaching.

  5. Supertradmum says:

    sorry now for know…after love….

  6. Jim R says:

    It is almost the nature of a living language (one used by people in their daily lives) that words change meaning over time. For the last sesquimillennium or so one of the most powerful arguments given for keeping Latin as the liturgical language of the Church has been that it was not spoken as the daily language of anyone – it was a “dead” language and thus the meanings of words was fixed. With fixed meanings the chance for confusion, ambiguity and error was significantly reduced and the ability to state things clearly and unambiguously was enhanced. While there are certainly arguments for the vernacular, the wisdom of using Latin for the definitive text sure has been proven over the last 50 years or so. “Gay” “marriage” and a host of other words merely prove the point.

  7. slainewe says:

    If pork producers sued successfully to place the “kosher” mark on their packaging, practicing Jews would immediately modify their mark in some way to insure Jews did not sin by mistakenly buying “kosher” products that were not “Jewish kosher.”

    The sin of allowing our children to confuse matrimony with sodomy is even greater. Should not the Church immediately begin referring to the Sacrament of Matrimony as “Catholic marriage” in all areas of communication?

  8. Fr AJ says:

    Charliebird, I love Patriarch Kirill, he’s a such a strong voice for morality in Russia. Compared to him, we look weak and compromise with sin. I love these people who think the Orthodox are spreading error throughout the world; the Orthodox may be the ones who save us from drowning in sin.

  9. Muv says:

    The process was well under way when the Sexual Offences Act 1956 (which codified the ancient common law definition of rape) was amended in 1994 so as to throw out the term sexual intercourse as meaning purely and simply the procreative act. The definition of rape has been further distorted by the Sexual Offences Act 2003. Anyone who wants to read what I am on about can go to the Wikipedia page Rape in English Law – sick bucket recommended.

    I’ve just checked the online Oxford Dictionary definition of the word rape. It is treading carefully around the 1994 definition and thankfully hasn’t gone the full ghastly 2003 hog.

    If the whole definition of sexual intercourse has been debased, then the definition of marriage will follow.

    Of course, none of this prevents us from using the language correctly, despite the efforts of legislators and lexicographers.

  10. Therese says:

    Wow. (For a post about the meaning of words, I have no words!)

    Things are happening fast, Supertradmum.

  11. APX says:

    I don’t understand how a dictionary can change the definition of a word. The etymology of marriage is rooted in the Latin words literally meaning “to make one a mother”. If this is the case, I’m boycotting the future purchases of new dictionaries and will only purchase used old ones if the need arises.

  12. Ben Kenobi says:

    Reason #9510 for Summorum Pontificum.

    One of the reasons I came over is precisely because the Catholic church had the proper understanding of marriage. It’s difficult to find these days with contraception – but there is a very real connection between contraception and homosexuality. If marriage is no longer a concern of the union but of feelings – then it opens the door much wider.

  13. Jeannie_C says:

    I was given a recipe a couple of years ago for ” Mexicali Chicken” and my eyes must have bugged out of my face upon reading the final line of instructions: “Bake in your gayest dish”until I realized this recipe was from the 40’s when gay meant cheerful. It seems the definition of the word “gay” somewhere along the line acquired sexual overtones, and I am careful how I use it. The Christmas song “Deck the Halls With Boughs of Holly” – “Don we now our gay apparel” conjures up hyper-sexualized parade wear in my mind as a result.

  14. Simon_GNR says:

    The United Kingdom Parliament having redefined marriage so as to include same-sex couples, I’m now looking forward to it re-writing the laws of chemistry such that in future water molecules will be able to be composed of hydrogen atoms alone or of oxygen atoms alone, instead of the traditional, outdated recipe of one oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms!!
    I don’t think I’ll be able to vote for the Conservative Party again as long as it is led by the current leader David Cameron, the Prime Minister who pushed the same-sex marraige law through Parliament despite having no democratic mandate to do so. In fact, I may never be able to vote Conservative again, full stop. One wonders what Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher would think about what this Conservative-led government has done.

  15. New Sister says:

    this is why Kindles make me nervous

  16. Fr. W says:

    After often explaining to people that consummation of a marriage is necessary for it to be valid, and that two men are not capable of consummating a marriage – and this is true even in the civil sphere – I have noticed that the word consummation is undergoing its own ‘evolution’.

  17. The Masked Chicken says:

    “I was given a recipe a couple of years ago for ‘Mexicali Chicken’.”

    Whew! For a minute, I thought you were given a recipe for Masked Chicken…

    The Chicken

  18. Elizium23 says:

    Marriages are valid before consummation. It is the exchange of consent which makes a valid marriage, no more and no less. A valid, sacramental marriage may be dissolved before consummation, but not after. Consummation is what makes a sacramental marriage indissoluble.

    Witness a Josephite wedding, which is perfectly valid but never consummated. The couple is free to consummate at any time, and must be capable at the time of exchange of vows for validity.

  19. Elizium23 says:

    That is not to say that the union of two men or two women is a valid marriage. Quite the contrary, the reason it is invalid is their inability to perform the marital embrace in a unitive and procreative manner. There is some analogy in an impotent man, who cannot validly marry.

  20. Sue says:

    Why don’t we just start referring to it as “gray lifestyle” instead of gay lifestyle. It’s much more accurate.

  21. Fr. W says:

    Thank you Elizium23, you are correct. Consummation – in the ecclesial and civil spheres – relates to indissolubility of marriage. And it is fascinating to see the definition of consummation begin to shift to accommodate the wacky times we live in.

  22. acardnal says:

    Let’s see . . .
    pro-choice = kill innocent, defenseless babies

    women’s reproductive rights = kill innocent, defenseless babies

    women’s health decisions = kill innocent, defenseless babies

    “All social engineering is preceded by verbal engineering.”, Msgr. Wm. Smith, S.T.D.

  23. Kathleen10 says:

    It is hard to get a mask on those little heads, the chicken refuses to be cooperative.

    This is all to say nothing of the sorrow felt about the rainbow, hijacked by the gay movement to represent “gay-dom”, when, it was given us by God to represent His faithfulness to the covenant between God and man. “I set my bow in the clouds…”. I love that.
    I say we KEEP that rainbow for it’s original intent.

  24. Ben Kenobi says:

    “Why don’t we just start referring to it as “gray lifestyle” instead of gay lifestyle. It’s much more accurate.”

    Personally I prefer the use of ‘ghey’.

  25. Cantor says:

    And what, one might ask, is the future of the humble pronoun?

  26. Timbot2000 says:

    This instantly made my think of The Princess Bride
    “You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means”

  27. John Nolan says:

    I came across the following sentence in JR Colville’s biography of Field Marshal Lord Gort. Referring to Alfred Duff Cooper, Secretary of State for War in the 1930s, he writes: “He was clever, cultivated, lovable, gay and as a Minister, notoriously idle.” Many people reading that today would assume that Duff Cooper, a notorious womanizer, was homosexual. Yet the book was published as recently as 1972.

    Incidentally, Duff Cooper’s niece was David Cameron’s grandmother.

  28. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    The OED was intended to be historical and descriptive. So, if a word is misused in a certain way, that misuse, as a kind of use, can – and in keeping with the intention of the dictionary, ought to – be described. It ought, further, to be described in a way which makes clear what is novel about that use, and exactly what its peculiar characteristics are. (I recall some controversy, a couple decades ago, about innovations in the way in which those producing and updating the OED went about their work, but do not recall the details. Nor can one simply generalize from the OED (even in its current form or modus operandi to any other dictionaries (etc.) produced by ‘OxfordDictionaries’ or whatever they are called.)

    Tangentially, I think Jim R is wrong in saying, “For the last sesquimillennium or so one of the most powerful arguments given for keeping Latin as the liturgical language of the Church has been that it was not spoken as the daily language of anyone – it was a ‘dead’ language”. Latin was a language very much alive throughout the Middle Ages – with lots on new vobaulary to serve subtle thinking (‘haecitas’ springs to mind), was spoken (together with Greek and Hebrew) by Lancelot Andrewes and his school-fellows in the sixteenth-century, was regularly used to keep college records in Oxford well into the eighteenth century, and is still necessarily alive today in the Vatican, where Latin words for new things have to be decided upon.

  29. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    ‘vobaulary’ does not, however, derive from any among its coinages: ‘vocabulary’, of course, was what I should have typed.

  30. John Nolan says:

    The Oxford lexicographers will point out that the function of a dictionary is to reflect current usage. But when a word is commonly misused out of ignorance, a dictionary needs to provide an objective standard; it is after all a work of reference. I use Chambers’s Twentieth Century Dictionary (1964 edition).

    Many years ago there was concern that exotic birds were being crated up and transported to Europe in aircraft holds in inhumane conditions. The Times had a headline which read “Transit of birds by air condemned”.

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