The Power of Lexicographers

Over on Change.org, there is a petition to change the definition of marriage to “reflect the reality that there is only one kind of marriage — one between two loving adults, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.”

This petition highlights a few fascinating things about dictionaries and the power of lexicographers. There are, however, a few things to understand before we get into the harmless drudgery of what’s at stake here.

First, many dictionaries these days are written using a corpus, or a large data bank of texts. The words in the texts are tagged for their part of speech (noun, verb, etc.) to make the corpus more easily searchable. Lexicographers then use the corpora to not only help them define a word, but also (and this is key) to help them rank the different senses of each word’s definition. The more often a sense of a word is used, the higher it will be in the list. This is why Macmillan lists the “financial institution” sense of bank before the “raised area of land along the side of a river” sense.

That’s a very broad way to define what lexicographers do. If you want to know more, I recommend checking out Kory Stamper’s excellent blog, Harmless Drudgery. She is a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster and her posts are a joy to read. What’s important to know is that lexicographers try to be as impartial as possible and they use computers to help them with this. As Ms. Stamper notes in a post full of advice for budding lexicographers, “The number one rule of lexicography is you never, ever intentionally insert yourself into your defining. Your goal as a lexicographer is to write a definition that accurately and concisely conveys how a word is used without distracting the reader with humor.” Or, in this case, malice.

Second, the petition says that “Currently Dictionary.com has two separate definitions for the word marriage — one for heterosexual marriage, and one for same-sex marriage.” That’s not entirely true. Dictionary.com has at least ten definitions for marriage. What the petition is referencing is the two senses of the first definition of marriage. Here’s the screenshot:

Third, the definitions in Dictionary.com come from both “experienced lexicographers” and over fifteen “trusted and established sources including Random House and Harper Collins.” According to them, they are “the world’s largest and most authoritative online dictionary.”* The definition for marriage does not say which dictionary it is pulled from, so I think it’s safe to assume that the lexicographers at Dictionary.com wrote it. It doesn’t really matter, as this post is about lexicography as a whole.

Now that we have an idea about how dictionaries are written and what’s going on at Dictionary.com, we can see the curious nature of the petition. Dictionaries do not tell society how words are defined, rather, for the most part, it is the other way around. If you want to be pedantic about it, you could say that society and dictionaries inform each other. (Let’s not get into the whole prescriptive/descriptive nature and history of dictionary, ok?) So at first the petitioner would seem to be mistaken.

And yet, he has a point. Here’s why.

The difference between a male/female marriage and a male/male or female/female marriage is just that: plus or minus a few letters on either side of the slash mark. No dictionary would list separate senses for marriages between Caucasians and African-Americans or for those between a blue-eyed and green-eyed people, so why bother splitting the definition in terms of gender?

There is also the fact that dictionaries do have some authority. People could defend what’s currently in Dictionary.com’s definition of marriage by saying that it merely reflects the lexicographers’ research into how the word is used (which may be based on a corpus). But with over 100,000 signatures on the petition, dictionaries clearly mean more to people than just a reflection of how we use words. In fact, Stephen Colbert – no stranger to defining words – mentioned this issue on his show in 2009 when he noted that Merriam-Webster’s had included the “same-sex” sense of marriage in a 2003 update to its dictionary. When lexicographers define words, people notice (after six years).

On the other hand, 100,000 speakers of English equates to anywhere from 0.03% to 0.005% of the total population of English speakers worldwide (wildly speculative numbers based on Ethnologue’s estimate of primary speakers to Britannica’s estimate of total speakers). Either way, that’s nowhere near a majority. We should be happy the “same-sex” version of marriage is in there at all.

And then there’s the fact that native speakers do not need a dictionary to define marriage for them. If I told another native speaker over the age of fourteen that Adam and Steve got married, they would understand what I meant and, depending on their political bent, view this as, well, however they wanted to.

But this points out the dilemma that lexicographers face. In my mind, putting the “same-sex” sense of marriage second does not amount to a “brush off” or “blurb” as the petition would have us believe. I wouldn’t accuse lexicographers of doing either for any word in a dictionary, but I would assume they had a good reason to separate the two meanings; namely, the separate but similar (not equal) uses of the word. And yet, some people would take offense because the state of marriage right now is a hot button issue in the United States. Lexicographers are like referees in at least one way: someone is always going to hate them.

The lexicographers for Dictionary.com were most likely well aware that some people may take offense to how they defined marriage, but what were they supposed to do?

Here’s how some other dictionaries handled marriage:

    Macmillan left gender out of the definition, saying just “the relationship between two people who are husband and wife.”

    Merriam-Webster is in the same boat as Dictionary.com, separating the senses in a very similar way.

    The American Heritage Dictionary included the “same-sex” sense in the first sense with an explanation of it being only “in some jurisdictions”

    Oxford English Dictionary included a note to how the term is “sometimes used” today (screen shot below, since it’s behind a pay wall):

Would any of these satisfy everyone? More importantly, do we really want our lexicographers using politics to define words? Haven’t they got enough on their desks already?

Finally, it’s worth noting that the Collins Dictionary defines marriage in the first sense as “the state of being married; relation between spouses; married life; wedlock; matrimony.” It makes you wonder why Dictionary.com didn’t didn’t use that definition and call it a day.

 

 

 

*My apologies to the lexicographers and word smiths who just spit their drink all over their computer screen. That “most authoritative” part was apparently not a joke. Now, let’s all pick our jaws up off the floor and go back up to where we were.

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Author: Joe McVeigh

I'm a linguist who researches email marketing. I also teach at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland. I write about language and linguistics on my blog, ...And Read All Over, and I write about language and marketing on my other blog, Email and Linguistics.

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