As moves to legalise gay marriage rumble on, so the effect on the English Language continues to be a live issue. I have argued in the past that attempts to introduce a brand new word to describe such unions are misguided.
The latest developments in the UK had some of the right wing press in a foment of rage. Men can be wives and women can be husbands, they raged, as the minutiae of Government legislation began to be picked apart.
The issue comes in the fine print of new official guidance for MPs and clarifies what words will mean as the bill is debated in parliament. In some contexts, husband and wife will be allowed to be used interchangeably for those who are part of same-sex couples, so indeed men will be wives and women will be husbands. The vocabulary of “cloud cuckoo land”, the critics lambast.
It’s easy to see why this makes a good headline, and why on the surface, this might be a story to get exercised about. After all, redefining basic words like husband and wife is surely wrong. But behind every good headline there is of course the truth.
And the truth is that this is simply about the past, about how to understand the way that old legislation has been written. Where the words husband and wife have been used, in this context, it can refer to either partner in a same sex-marriage.
The guidance cites early health and safety legislation from 1963 which includes a range of exemptions for family businesses where the terms husbands and wives will mean people of either gender. It says: “This means that ‘husband’ here will include a man or a woman in a same sex marriage, as well as a man married to a woman.”
Is this language being redefined? No, it is instead a pragmatic approach to avoid rewriting reams and reams of old legislation, a sensible acknowledgement that for this old legalese, a wider interpretation is needed.
It is not a suggestion that future legislation will use husband and wife in anything other than a gender-specific way. In future, a man married to either a woman or a man will be a husband, and a wife married to someone of either sex will be referred to as a wife. No confusion there.
A spokesman for the Coalition for Marriage said: “We always knew the Government would tie itself in knots trying to redefine marriage, and this shows what a ridiculous mess they’ve created.”
No, this shows how critics will jump on anything to try and get a cheap headline.