First the Iowa Supreme Court, followed by the Vermont Legislature and now Noah Webster? Will the fact that dictionaries are giving a nod to same sex unions in their definition of "marriage," smooth the way for gay marriage?
Opponents of gay marriage generally have relied on two authorities, the Bible and the dictionary—the divine word and the defined word. A 2006 friend-of-the-court brief filed on behalf of anti-gay-marriage organizations in a Maryland marriage case cited no fewer than seven dictionaries to make its point. And when the Iowa Supreme Court legalized gay marriage last week, it ignored the state's plea to abide by a dictionary definition that limited marriage to "the legal union of a man and a woman."
But in their latest editions, the dictionaries have begun to switch sides—though until recently, no one seemed to have much noticed. The American Heritage Dictionary, Black's Law Dictionary, the Oxford English Dictionary, and Webster's have all added same-sex unions to their definitions of marriage.* The right-wing Web site WorldNetDaily broke the news in March about Webster's, reporting that the dictionary had "resolved the argument" over gay marriage by applying the ancient term "to same-sex duos."
How, exactly, has the wording in the dictionaries changed? American Heritage went first, adding this to its definition of marriage in 2000: "A union between two persons having the customary but usually not the legal force of marriage: a same-sex marriage." In 2003, Webster's included in its definition "the state of being united to a person of the same sex in a relationship like that of a traditional marriage." In 2004, in its eighth edition, Black's added "same-sex marriage" to its marriage entry, recognizing that "same-sex couples have successfully challenged the laws against same-sex marriage" in a number of states. Even more interesting, 2008's Webster's Contemporary School and Office Dictionary says nothing gendered about marriage at all. The entry simply states that marriage is "the state of being united to another person as a contractual relationship according to law or custom." And the king of them all, the Oxford English Dictionary, since 2000 has included in the definition of marriage the phrase "long-term relationships between partners of the same sex."*