Friday, 23 September 2011

What's in a word?

A couple of days ago, I was in the gym, not that there is anything unusual about that, of course. Like most gyms, mine has a bank of TV screens just above the cardio machines, showing various different channels, so you can have something to take your mind off the boring drudge of doing cardio. My eye was drawn to a debate on BBC News about the government’s new plan to allow full legal marriage for same sex couples, a move fully supported, incidentally, by our Prime Minister David Cameron. (Not normally a fan of Dave, I have to admit that occasionally he does get something right.) I couldn’t actually hear the debate, as I was listening to my own music, so was following by just reading the subtitles. A plump, ever so wholesome middle aged woman was saying that it was wrong to use the word marriage for same sex unions as the dictionary clearly stated that marriage described the union between a man and a woman. Further investigation proved that not to be quite true, but, for the moment, let’s assume that what this woman is saying is correct, and that marriage can only refer to that between two people of the opposite sex. Smiling sweetly, she then went on to say that she had nothing against people of the same sex wishing to legitimise their union, but that they already had their own word for that, which is civil partnership. Leaving aside for the moment the question of semantics, it was none the less obvious to me that she viewed marriage as somehow having more validity than civil partnerships, her inference being therefore that heterosexual relationships have more validity than homosexual ones. Clearly then this is a case where the word we use does actually matter. As a single man, I used to think that the whole gay marriage/civil partnership debate had very little relevance to me, but now I see that it has very great relevance for us all. Suddenly the word marriage puts us on a level footing with our straight bothers and sisters. Words can be very powerful.

When I got home, I decided to look up the true meaning of the word marriage.  The OED of 1898 defines it thus

  1. a. The condition of being a husband or wife; the relation between married persons; spousehood, wedlock.

Notice that even in 1898 there is no prescription that the marriage pairing is only husband and wife.

In the latest edition of the OED, the definition has changed slightly.
1.      a. The condition of being a husband or wife; the relation between persons married to each other; matrimony.
The term is now sometimes used with reference to long-term relationships between partners of the same sex.

The same edition also contains a definition of a gay marriage.
gay marriage n. a relationship or bond between partners of the same sex which is likened to that between a married man and woman; (in later use chiefly) a formal marriage bond contracted between two people of the same sex, often conferring legal rights; (also) the action of entering into such a relationship; the condition of marriage between partners of the same sex.

Quite aside from being wrong in her definition of marriage, this woman seemed intent on denying us the same rights that she, and all heterosexuals take for granted.

Words are important. How important they are was brought home to me by a piece of news that was brought to my attention, courtesy of Pink News. Jamie Rodemeyer was a 14 year old boy, studying at Williamsville North high School in Buffalo, New York. He was gay, and to all intents and purposes was managing to deal with the bullying and taunts he suffered at his school. He even made an “It Gets Better” video for youtube. Sadly for Jamie, things didn’t get better. The bullying got worse, and finally, unable to take it any longer, he took his own life. How can we hope to stop this bullying when politicians and church leaders constantly indulge in out and out homophobia themselves? The woman on BBC News was indulging her own homophobia, albeit subtly, when she wrongly defined the word marriage as being between a man and a woman. A recent report indicates that over 50% of the British public opposes gay marriage, indicating that society still, at best, tolerates rather than accepts us. I have no doubt that many of those polled are not religious, but religious bigotry somehow seeps down and into society, and colours the way people think whether they go to church or not, and it affects the way our children think and behave.
So, I ask again, what’s in a word? Rather a lot, I would say. Let us hope that, despite the findings of this recent government report, David Cameron can win the debate on same sex marriage, and the law will be changed during the lifespan of this parliament, as he would like.

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