“A horse is a horse, of course, of course. . .”
That was the opening line of a theme song for a television program named Mr. Ed. Have you seen it? It is about a talking horse, and it is very amusing.
People often mix up words, their underlying concepts, and their definitions. Although those three things are very closely linked, they are not the same.
In our minds we have a concept of what a horse is. We tend to visualize the typical or quintessential horse whenever we are prompted to think of one. To that concept we ascribe the word horse. We define it, either as it is commonly used or as zoologists use it, which turns out pretty much the same.
If we wanted to, we could call it a caballo, as they do in Spanish, but English speakers have pretty much unanimously agreed to call it a horse. We could call it a goat, but then we would probably have to come up with a different word for the animal that we currently call a goat. We could assign it a numeric code or, as in sign language for the deaf, a particular gesture. However, our ancestors decided to call it a horse, and dictionaries record that word and its definitions, as we use it.
Prescriptivists are those people who see word defintion and usage as pretty much fixed. They see the job of dictionaries as telling us what words mean and how they should be used. Decsciptivists, on the other hand, see definitions and usage as subject to change. They see the job of dictionaires as reporting how most people define and use words.
The thing that I think we should keep in mind, however, is that the concepts behind the words, and the underlying realities, are what they are. No matter what words we use or how we define them, a thing or an idea is whatever it is. We do not live in a magical world in which entities can suddenly be transformed by calling them different names or by imagining them in different ways. We can humorously refer to weiners as “tube steak” but that does not transform them into sirloins. A woman can imagine that her cubic zirconium ring is a diamond, but that does not make it so.
What is this about really? A commenter recently wrote that marriage is whatever we define it as. That sounds good at first glance. Most people would read that statement and nod in agreement. However, I humbly suggest that the person who wrote it, Scott Erb, was mixing up real things, concepts, and definitions.
Take another example that is totally unrealted. Would we say that a skyscraper is whatever we define it as? It is hard to define that word precisely. For example, is a ten-storey building a skyscraper? I doubt that most people would refer to such a building that way nowadays. They certainly would not call a three-storey building a skyscraper. Does that mean that the word has no meaning at all? If so, we would hardly be able to use it.
A skyscaper is a very tall building, one that figuratively scrapes the sky. When I think of one, I visualize the Empire State Building or the Chrysler Building. I probably drift into thinking about the John Hancock Building in Boston, because I have an early memory of being at the top of it.
Whatever word we might use for those buildings, the concept exists. We all can imagine a skyscraper when prompted to do so. And the reality exists; there really are buildings that are much taller than average. It does not matter one bit how we play around with the word or adjust its definition, the thing is what it is.
What if we decided to call every building a skyscaper? We could do it. After all, a skyscaper is whatever we define it as. However, I don’t think it would catch on with most people. They would think it odd to apply the term to a structure that is only 15 feet tall. Although it is scientifically imprecise, we think of the sky as being way above our heads.
Now, let’s turn to marriage. When most people hear the word, they probably think of a man (probably dressed in a black tuxedo) and a woman (probably dressed in a white gown). Or they think of their own spouse or perhaps their parents or perhaps some of their friends who are married. So, there is a concept of marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and that has been almost the exclusive concept since the beginning of America–indeed throughout all of European history, if not human history.
Our concept of marriage almost always involves opposites, even when we use it metaphorically. We can speak of the marriage between coffee and milk in a cafe latte, which combines something dark and bitter with something white and mild.
The entity exists, whatever one might call it. It is true that men and women join with each other in exclusive relationships that involve living together, supporting one another, having intimate relationships with each other, and producing offspring. Sometimes we call it marriage, and sometimes we call it matrimony. But whatever we call it, it is what it is. It would not change if we decided to call it something else, say partnership or coupling. It would not change if we imagined it a different way–for example, as a relationship between two people of the same sex. The more common thing, the union of a man and a woman, would still be a very real thing, and we would probably want a unique name for it.
After all, the union of a man and a woman is substantially and essentially different from the union of a man and a man or of a woman and a woman. Those unions might be similar, but they are not identical. Anatomy tells you so. Genetics tells you so. The little babies that are the usual result of the opposite-sex union tell you so.
I am not arguing here that homosexual people should not have mutually exclusive relationships that are like marriage. In the eyes of the law, they should be able to do whatever they want. I am not arguing here that they should not call their relationship a marriage, if they want. I am merely saying that there will still exist something different from that kind of relationship. There will still be unions between men and women, and there will probably need to be a term for that kind of union, if the word marriage is routinely applied to a broader category of relationships.
I am also arguing that it is in the sphere of the public, the common ordinary people, that definitions of words should be decided. The government does have to define words for purposes of the law; for example, they must precisely differentiate between homocide and manslaughter, although the common word killing can apply to both. However, with such a basic, cherished word as marriage, I am not sure that it is the function of government to tell us what it means or to tell us how we must use it.
To summarize, the thing we have generally called marriage is what it is, which to most people is a union between a man and a woman, whatever we might have chosen to call it. It cannot change by having the word marriage defined in a new way. The concept of marriage to most people includes the essential feature that it joins things or people that are opposites. The definition of marriage, as most people use the word, already matches that concept and that reality. Why force a change on people officially?
If most people are willing to regard same-sex unions as marriages, the change will catch on. People who don’t like the change can adapt by coming up with a new term for opposite-sex unions. Eventually the law and the government could officially recognize the change adopted by the public at large. Why not let it be settled that way?