When Three is Not a Crowd

As gay marriage has become more prevalent around the world, so people have cropped up from time to time to say that the institution needs a new word to describe it, a position I have vehemently argued against on innumerable occasions.

However, there are times when even I will admit that a new word may be just what is needed.

In Colombia, plans are afoot for the first legal ceremony to join three people together in matrimony. The three men currently live as a ‘throuple’ – another word I will admit that I didn’t know but one which has apparently been a thing for the last three or four years – and are now all set to be joined legally.

There is no legal term for the union of Victor Hugo Prada, Manuel Bermudez and Alejandro Rodriguez, so Colombian officials have had to invent one. They are calling it a “régimen patrimonial especial de trieja”, translated as “a special patrimonial union”.

If marriages between throuples start to take off, and it might given that a trend for three people living together in blissful harmony seems to be catching on, then a new word which is catchier than the one attempted in Colombia is likely to be needed. Throupliage? Or maybe Threesome could take on a new meaning? Or is this just a variant of polygamy dressed up as something else.

Whatever is finally chosen, the coverage which this story has received suggests that not only will throuple become a word with which we will become increasingly familiar, but also that soon there may be a groundswell of opinion pushing for a new word for a new kind of union.

Pairage Can Never Be Equal

It’s been some time since I have felt compelled to write about the issue of gay marriage, largely because politicians have refrained from trying to coin new words to describe these unions.

However, Utah Congressman Kraig Powell has become the latest politician to show that he simply doesn’t get it. The Republican has suggested that the best way to get round a current round of delays in the Supreme Court regarding gay marriage is to create a new word, suggesting this will solve the problem. His suggestion is that such unions be called Pairages.

My view on this remains exactly as it did last time I castigated a politician for suggesting an alternative word, in that case the word being Sarriage. The act of creating a new word automatically confers a different status on the act, thereby removing the equality that legislation legalising it is designed to give it. What is always presented as a neat way to solve administrative problems is actually a way to deny people the rights they are fighting for.

Hopefully this latest neologism will go the way of all the others and be nothing more than an idea that never gets any traction. That will leave courts and politicians free to get on with the important task of ensuring that everybody has the same rights as everybody else when they have found their perfect match.

Gay Marriage Already Recognised

The Oxford English Dictionary is thinking about extending its definition of marriage to include Gay Marriage. At least, that is what you would believe if you were to read the coverage this story has received in the last week.

Except it’s not really true. Because the OED has already done it.

The story that prompted the flurry of reaction appeared in the Gay Stay News, quoting an OED spokeswoman as saying: “We continually monitor the words in our dictionaries, paying particular to those words whose usage is shifting, so yes, this will happen with marriage.”

But what appeared to be a significant language story was nothing of the sort, despite the number of sources which then picked it up and used it to further whichever side of the argument they subscribe to. Because when Wordability contacted the OED, I got the following statement:

“Many of our dictionaries including the Oxford English Dictionary, as well as oxforddictionaries.com, already include references to same sex-marriage as part of their definitions. Dictionaries reflect changes in the use of language, rather than changes in law, and we are constantly monitoring usage in this area in order to consider what revisions and updates we may need to make. The English language is always developing and, along with many other words, we will continue to monitor the way in which ‘marriage’ is used.”

Here is a link to the definition, which includes the meaning “(in some jurisdictions) a union between partners of the same sex”. Now that seems pretty cut and dried to me. What is weird is that this definition is included in the Gay Star Times story, but never let that get in the way of a good headline. The story dismisses it by saying that campaigners object to this definition, calling it discriminatory, beause if it is law in any country it should be on the same ‘ranking’ as a heterosexual union.

I am happy to admit there may be minutiae of this debate that I don’t understand, but it seems to be that this is a pretty good position for campaigners. The most highly regarded dictionary in the world already has the definition included, and also acknowledges that it is a changing situation. But what it doesn’t do is in any way suggest that an alternative word is needed, as many daft people have continued to argue and Wordability has continually battled against.

It would seem only a matter of time before the OED definition evolves again, and with the gay marriage meaning already encapsulated, it appears that the correct linguistic conclusion will be reached for this particular story.

The Truth About Husbands And Wives

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.

Say I Don’t To Sarriage

The subject of gay marriage is never far from the headlines, and the linguistic aspects of the debate also froth constantly near the surface.

Last year I looked at the discussions around the naming of the whole institution, and in particular the efforts of some to introduce a brand new word for it.

At the time I said that this completely missed the point at the heart of these issues, and that by giving this institution a different name it automatically became a different institution and therefore did not achieve the equality for which its adherents are fighting.

But despite this, some people still don’t get it. One such person is New Zealander Russell Morrison, whose contribution to a lively discussion among his country’s MPs was to suggest legislation for a brand new word – Sarriage.

He said: “Then a person can be asked whether he or she is married or sarried, and the response will make the situation clear for everybody.”

No Mr Morrison. What it will make clear to everybody is that parliament has failed in its role to give equality to people and has instead continued to sideline them by creating a brand new word. Or as Australian Marriage Equality’s national convener Rodney Croome eloquently put it: “What is the point of assigning same-sex couples a different word when ‘marriage’ describes exactly what many same-sex couples already have, a loving, committed, long-term relationship?

“The effect of alternate words like ‘sarriage’ would be to set same-sex partners apart, re-inforce discrimination against us and suggest our relationships are somehow less valuable and less serious than our heterosexual counterparts.”

Mr Croome is absolutely right. New words come in when there is a gap which needs filling. That is not the case here. But it will not stop the suggestions coming in.

The Latest Word on Gay Marriage

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.