Gay marriage is a hot political topic like never before. US President Barack Obama has backed it, individual American states are embroiled in legislation over it, while across the pond, David Cameron’s UK coalition is consulting on allowing it.
From a language point of view, the issue is fascinating. Because one of its side effects is to spawn a plethora of debate over the status of the word marriage itself.
It is important to remember just how important words are where marriage is concerned. It is one of those rare things in life where simply saying some words can effect a tangible change in somebody’s status as a person. So long as location and celebrant are approved, the act of listening to certain words and then saying “I do” moves someone from the status of being single to being married. Words enact the change.
So the use of the word marriage itself has to be important. Googling the question “Does there need to be a new word for marriage” brings up a range of debates and articles, with suggestions such as Holy Matrimony, Sanctirage or Garriage finding their way onto the internet.
But all of these miss the point. By trying to introduce new words for marriage, any sense of equality is immediately lost. If gay marriage becomes more and more accepted, calling it something else will still make it be perceived as something else, and the very way it is referred to will confer a sense that it is not equal. The current debate on Twitter, where the hashtag #gaymarriage is prevalent, makes the point. A number of people are pointing out that this hash tag gives a sense that #gaymarriage is a different type of marriage, and surely it should just be called marriage. So I think the quest for a different name is a way for people to undermine the very idea of this kind of union and strip it of its legitimacy by calling it something else.
Much more reasoned is the idea that dictionaries themselves will have to redefine marriage as a union between two people, and not a union between a man and a woman. Ben Zimmer of the Visual Thesaurus has written an excellent account of the history of the word’s definitions, and I commend it as vital background on this subject.
It is clear that this debate is going to run and run. It will only be over when the term Gay Marriage itself has been consigned to history.