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Charlotte Simpson is a writer and radio producer.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

A redefinition of nothing at all

This redefinition of words business: the churches that have suddenly taken a keen interest in preserving our language as well as our sexual purity seem to have forgotten that word usage develops all the time. Have a look through the OED - there aren't many words whose meanings haven't changed over time. The causes of these changes are usually lost in time but we can often pinpoint them to new technologies or changes in social mores. For centuries 'computer' meant 'a person who makes calculations or computations' and it wasn't used in its current meaning of 'a device or machine for performing or facilitating calculation' until the 1860s. I guess recently published dictionaries have to include an endless list of new functions now. Words stretch to encompass the needs of the community of speakers. Did we redefine the words 'vote' or 'democracy' when women were finally enfranchised after a democratic history going back to antiquity that only extended the vote to powerful men? Of course not - we just agreed as a society that the thing that the word represented would now have a broader scope because we made a political decision to advance equality.

Religious understandings of marriage have tended to exclude gay people but the practice has changed dramatically over time. Plenty of examples of polygamy in the OT but we're now fixating on the 'man and the woman' bit of the 'timeless' definition rather than the 'two people' part which is far from eternal. The other thing I want to say about language is that, as all minorities with a history of persecution know, it is deadly in its capacity to hurt. When people say 'there's no need to redefine marriage' - I want to ask who says? Clearly if you're happily married to a partner of the opposite sex you might not perceive a need. But how equal would you feel if you were excluded from using the one word that is most associated in our culture with lifelong loving commitment? When I got married I was moved by the history of the institution and particularly by the writing about marriage - both literary and religious, ancient and modern, that is part of my culture. For some gay people, it's hurtful to be made to feel foolish for wanting to share in that tradition. Shakespeare didn't write a sonnet that begins 'Let me not to the civil partnership of true minds / Admit impediments.' It wouldn't have scanned. Imagine if we said that any black person couldn't get married they had to get 'black-married' or some nonsense like that. The divisive use of language on this issue is very upsetting for some people - I'm really saddened by the lack of compassion I'm hearing from some people of faith on this issue. The 'there's no need' argument totally ignores the feelings of a large minority of people in our society.

We don't legislate to change the meanings of words, we just do it - that's really how language evolves. The thing is that for most of us that evolution has already happened. I've never received an invitation to a celebration of a 'civil partnership' but I've been lucky enough to be invited to a couple of weddings which happened to have same-sex protagonists. Most of us are already saying 'wedding' and 'marriage' to reflect the wishes of the people involved rather than a vocal religious minority who don't like it. The redefinition - if that's what you insist on calling it - has already happened. I passionately support religious freedom but I haven't seen any convincing evidence that the new legislation will endanger it in any way. It's not the business of the state to tell faith groups what to believe, practise or preach but neither is it the business of faith groups to tell the state what rights to grant its citizens - or to try to tell anyone how to use the English language.


  1. I'm sorry that people do not understand the deep concept behind 'marriage' and the long history of it. Marriage was developed by society to allow men to satisfy their sexual urges by contracting, to the woman of their choice, that he would support her and any children of that sexual contract. Now gays may shout all they like about wanting equality, but two men or two women can spend 24 hours a day being sexually intimate, but that intimacy is not going to produce children, their sexual relationship and therefore their responsibilities, are not equal to that between man and woman and there is nothing that any politician can do to change it. Why try to redefine something that is unchangeable?

  2. Hi Mrs.D, thanks so much for reading my blog and for commenting. I can't agree with your suggestion that marriage is unchangeable - given that in the Judeo-Christian tradition its meaning has already changed from one where polygamy was acceptable to one where it is not. The whole question of the children is complicated. Of course you're right that protecting women and children was and remains a key benefit of marriage but it has never been the only reason for marrying. As an old romantic I like to believe that the desire to commit your love to someone forever isn't a new thing - surely there have always been romantic people out there? But also there's never been a prohibition to stop post-menopausal women or infertile people from marrying. Furthermore, in our democracy, the political decision has been made that it is ok for gay people to adopt children or to have fertility treatment - so many gay couples do have exactly the same parenting responsibilities as straight ones. Politicians in a democracy have to respond to the will of the majority while protecting the rights of minorities. In this instance the majority supports a broadening of the understanding of marriage to include gay people. Now the politicians need to work very hard to make sure that their promises to religious people - to protect their freedom to teach and practise whatever they want to about marriage - are watertight. There are instances where equality legislation has had unintended consequences - such as the closure of Catholic adoption agencies - so let's hope that the government's lawyers do a better job this time. But I believe it would be undemocratic to go against the will of the majority on this issue simply because some people of faith oppose it. Ultimately - how does it affect happily married Mr and Mrs X if their neighbours down the road, Mr and Mr Y are allowed to get married? I've heard talk of gay marriage cheapening, weakening or bringing into disrepute the institution of marriage - but for those of us who support gay marriage it's quite the opposite - surely the more people who commit to lifelong relationships rather than short-term flings, the more stability in families and communities?