Wednesday, June 29, 2011

I Now Pronounce You...

The priest, the bride in her marshmallow dress, and groom in his tux, the rings and the roses. The crying guests with tissues. The cake cutting.

"By the power vested in me by the state of ___________, I now pronounce you man and wife."

This is not only an image we are familiar with, it's an image many of us are attached to. This is tradition, right? This is what marriage has always been, isn't it? A joining of man and woman to start a family and a life together. That's what the word marriage means, right?

And the gay rights movement, in its attempt to gain legal recognition for gay and lesbian couples is apparently trying to steal the word marriage. Attempting to redefine it. This threatens our entire way of life. According to some it trivializes their own marriage. It threatens tradition and history.

Why are we so attached to this word, marriage, and what it "has always been"? Why does its definition affect us so much?

Language evolves constantly. Words change meanings and definitions minute-by-minute. Every day Merriam-Webster editors scour publications looking for new words or new usages for old words and every year they add words to the dictionary. Rumor has it the word frenemy, defined as "a person with whom one is friendly despite a fundamental dislike or rivalry" was added in 2010 to many long-respected dictionaries. This alone should make us question attachment to any word to definition. Who knows what word tomorrow's viral YouTube video will bring us?

When Shakespeare wrote his poem "Pheonix and Turtle" he wasn't talking about a bird and a reptile. The entire poem is sprinkled with images of birds, and during that time period no one used the word Turtle to describe the hard-shelled, slow-moving reptiles we know today. He was talking about the Turtle Dove. Which is good, because the rapid movement Shakespeare illustrates in the poem is completely uncharacteristic of the turtles we know and love today. (Sorry, lit-geek moment there)

Anyone who uses "google" as a verb or knows the word "text" isn't describing a dusty book in the back of a library is using language as it has evolved in just the last few years. To my dismay the words "irregardless" and "funner" have been finding their way into common language so often that even educated people are beginning to accept them as valid words. Most of the time when language changes people don't even notice. So why does everyone freak out over the definition of marriage?

Let's look at the evolution of marriage, itself because anyone who thinks that image of the bride in the white dress and the groom in a tux is the way it has always been may be in for a surprise. The white dress itself is a tradition younger than The United States, begun by Queen Victoria in 1840.

Throughout history people have married for different reasons. Most recently, by historical standards, people have married for love or to raise a family, but to assume this is the long-standing tradition is simply naive.

For a large portion of history people married for economic reasons or in arranged marriages determined when a girl was just a toddler. Considering my family's economic status I would have to say I'm glad that the whole "dowry" concept has been dropped by much of society, because I doubt my family could have offered much to my sister's wonderful new husband, but we were able to offer a woman who loves him dearly and wants to spend her life with him.

And really, that's what marriage is about today, right? Establishing who we want to spend our lives with. Legally protecting ourselves, our assets and our children. Committing ourselves to each other and a future together.

Marriage was originally a business deal and became a religious ceremony with the rise of Christianity in the 12th century. It was until the 16th century that Martin Luther declared marriage to be "a worldly thing... that belongs to the realm of government" and ceremonies began to be performed by a Justice of the Peace instead of a Priest. With the feminist movement came women denying taking their husband's name, refusing to be "owned" by the man they love. This doesn't make them less married, does it?

Marriage, its definition, and it's history all show us that it is an evolving thing. The fight against this evolution seems largely futile to me. If marriage had always been a religious thing, always been a government contract, or always been between a man and a woman who had fallen in love I could see this side of the argument. But it hasn't. It has changed, its purpose and definition have changed. Society changes. Language changes.

Even the image of the bride in the white dress has evolved over the years. To propose a new defition of the word, if that is what people claim the gay rights movement is doing, is not a new thing. It has been done many times throughout the history of humanity. For many the fidelity of marriage is the most important part, for others it is inconsequential. For many the legal protection is the most important, for others it is the religious recognition.

For me, "irregardless" and "funner" will never be words. I guess we all have language we are attached to, huh?

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