The Power of Lexicographers

Over on, 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 has two separate definitions for the word marriage — one for heterosexual marriage, and one for same-sex marriage.” That’s not entirely true. 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 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 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, 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’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 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, 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 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.

Santorum Samples Vol. 4

Santorum Samples are passages from Rick Santorum’s It Takes a Family. They are deliberately taken out of context in an attempt to show that Mr. Santorum is a rational human being. Because we all know that when viewed in context, Rick Santorum is a jackass. Find more samples here or just click on the tab above.

From p. 37:

“Irving Kristol once wrote that the most subversive question that can be posed to civilization is: why not? Thanks to the decision of four activist judges in Massachusetts, that is a question we now must face as Americans. In order to answer the question of “Why not?” with respect to same-sex marriage, we have to come to a fuller understanding of what marriage is. Is it simply about publicly honoring a romantic attachment? That’s what the highest court in Ontario, Canada, believes. Just in time for the June wedding season of 2003 that court wrote, as it ruled in favor of same-sex marriages:

Marriage is, without dispute, one of the most significant forms of personal relationship…. Through the institution of marriage, individuals can publicly express their love and commitment to each other. Through this institution, society publicly recognized expressions of love and commitment between individuals, granting them respect and legitimacy as a couple.*

Marriage in this view means nothing more to society, to what we are as a people, and to our future, than making people feel accepted. The state’s interest in promoting and stamping approval upon a marriage starts and stops with tolerance, and therefore it is meaningless.”

Lessons learned:

1. Here’s the game show that is playing in Rick Santorum’s head:

Welcome to Who Defines Marriage?!, the game show where one lucky winner gets to define marriage for the rest of the country! Let’s meet our contestants. Hailing from lovely Everywhere, USA, is Society! Society is reasonably conflicted over this, but no matter – the part of it that opposes same-sex marriage will be dead soon! Next up, we have the Courts! With a flair for the dramatic and a style that is both comfortable and classy, the Courts usually consider their best trait to be the ability to grant equality to all. And last but not least, we have Rick Santorum! Rick believes he deserves to define marriage because, hey, what he thinks is good for (his) God is damn well good for everyone else – whether they like it or not! … And the winner is Rick Santorum!

2. Tolerance makes things meaningless. Sooooo…. Fuck you to all the non-white, non-straight, non-Christian non-male people out there. Society’s tolerance of you is ruining Rick Santorum’s meaning.

3. Blame Canada!



*Also, us here at …And Read All Over would like to send a warm Fuck yeah! to the highest court in Ontario.

Twumping Bachmann

Michele, we need to talk. I’ve been hearing these crazy things about you. I mean really crazy things. At first, I said to myself everything’s cool because these crazy things match your crazy eyes. It’s what makes them sparkle.

But there’s something bigger at stake here.

The fact is, Michele, you’ve been ignoring me. How many times does a normal Joe like me need to tell a Member of Congress to tweet their Congress member? I thought that’s what Congress members Members of Congress were good for. I also thought we were off to a good start. I followed you, you followed me, things were looking up. But where have we followed each other to?

It’s the 11th hour now and you still haven’t thrown the Hail Mary. I’m afraid I’ve lost faith in you. I’m going to have to Twump™ you. It sounds cute, but in this day and age, being Twitter dumped is like being really dumped. Like for real for real.

I wish you the best of luck in your craziness and your gay conversions. Here’s hoping your program will work on your husband. I know there are lots of gay men out there just waiting to embrace Marcus Bachmann.

[Update – Jan. 4, 2011] See what happens when you don’t tweet your Congress member, Michele?

Application for Writer Position at the Center for Marriage Policy [Updated]

Dear Mr. Usher,

I really like what you’ve done with your article (Why Same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, 11/2011). In my mind, it’s perfect satire. I mean feminist lesbian conspiracies – where did you come up with that? It’s marvelous. And that’s not to mention the Constitutional Amendments that you threw in there (Seriously, I bet nobody checked if they were relevant).

But I must say that I feel like people still aren’t getting the point. Consider this article, in which the writer took you very seriously. It’s preposterous, I know, but there it is.

And that brings me to what I feel I can add. The Center for Marriage Policy is on the brink of being the best farce in the land – it just needs that extra push over the edge and into the abyss of reality. I am that extra push.

Allow me to demonstrate. I believe that all kids should play with legos, since legos teach them that homosexuality is wrong. Think about it. You build a lego home by placing the nub of one lego into the hole of another. You can’t build a sturdy lego home by poking two nubs together. It’s the same way with homosexuality. You can’t build a sturdy home without putting a man’s nub into a woman’s hole. That’s the way God intended it.

Or, have you ever rubbed the hole sides of two lego pieces together? That’s basically just like lesbianism. And it’s subverting America. Whenever I see my kids do that, I smack them. Also the way God intended it.

See? I just made that up right here on the spot! You see what I mean? I can be the force that ensures no one takes you seriously anymore. I mean heterosexual legos? It’s like feminist lesbian conspiracies but better. Also, since legos come in different colors, it could serve as a great example against interracial marriages if you wanted to go there.

The lego idea is a freebie – just know that there is plenty more where that came from. If you’re looking to really hit it big, get in touch. I think you and I would be great together (no homo). All I need is the opportunity to prove it to you.

Keep fighting the straight fight.


Joe McVeigh

[UPDATE – Dec. 31, 2011] Here’s what Mr. Usher had to say to my application (via email; click to embiggen):

“Sorry but I’m not impressed by critical theory ridicule methods.  It is you that is out of touch with facts and reality.

This is your last email to me.  I have a filter on you now.”

Oh no! There’s a filter on me now! Get it off, get it off! David, I was just trying to help.

Wait a minute. If I’m out of touch with facts and reality, that means David’s article was serious. But… that means he believes… but how could anyone… *head explodes*

Another Important Voice Weighs in on Gay Marriage

Right on the heels of David Tyre’s anarchy predictions, another prominent voice has come out against same-sex marriage. This time it’s my dog, Mr. Bo Jangles, who has expressed concern over the legalization of gay marriage.

Mr. Jangles has been known to voice his opinion in the past, usually when he’s hungry, when he really has pee, or when there’s a pile of shit on the sidewalk that he wants to stick his nose in. But in a rare instance of speaking out on public policy issues, Mr. Jangles told of his apprehensions about what same-sex marriage could mean for other dogs around the country.

“Imagine if I had been raised by two men,” he seemed to say with those puppy dog eyes. “I would probably still be the fearless home protector that you rely on, but would I be able to snuggle with you as good as I can now? Would my licks to your face be as soft and full of devotion as they are now? I don’t believe so because those are the kind of things only a female master can teach.”

Proceeding down the same logical path, Mr. Jangles likened the social and legal approval of same-sex marriage to the anarchy that comes when thunder strikes or when the garage door closes.

But Jangles isn’t the only one making his sound heard in McVeigh Manor. Mr. Jangles’s opposition to gay marriage, which was backed by the National Orgasm for Marriage, comes on the heels of my cat Mittens’s support for the same-sex marriage law passing through the chambers of my house.

“Why the hell would I give a shit what you worthless humans do?” Mittens glared. “Yeah, I’m for it. I’m for any laws that offer Emperor Mittens a chance at more food. Got it, dummy? Now, get off the couch. All this meaningless talk of human concerns has nearly bored me to death. I need a nap.”

The coming out, so to speak, of Mittens was shocking since she has always been either too uninterested or too asleep to engage anyone in any kind of social interaction. But last week her energy in declaring her stance reminded me of the time I tied a piece of string to the back of the chair.

No word yet on where my fish stands on this issue. Or my imaginary iguana.

Stay tuned to hear what these important voices have to say.

Related posts:

Removing the Middleman from the Gay Marriage Debate

Removing the Middleman from the Gay Marriage Debate

I’m hearing a lot about gay marriage. There are debates going on throughout the nation. From stately Minnesota to free-wheelin’ California to… Iowa? Seriously? OK.

Anyways, everyone seems to be worried about whether or not the gays will be allowed to marry. But I think everyone is missing a very big point here. This debate isn’t about whether marriage is defined as being solely between a man and a woman (and according to one faaaaaabulous source, it isn’t). The gay marriage debate is really about whether or not marriage is defined as being solely between one penis and one vagina.

People always want to throw around words like “man” and “woman,” but when you get right down to it, these are just the middlemen and women in this debate. I say we cut them out and put all our cards on the table. Are we able to agree that marriage can be between not only a penis and a vagina, but also between one penis and another penis, or even one vagina and another vagina? Because that is the real question.

I’ve even thought of a helpful way for confused people to tackle this question in their minds by using their hands. Ready?

First, hold up both of your index fingers. Next, pretend that they are penises. Then poke the tips of them together. Now, does this game feel more or less natural than if you looped one index finger in the thumb to make an imaginary vagina? Forget that this hand symbol is a reference to homosexuality in some countries. Stay focused. Does the pretend penis poking make you feel uncomfortable enough to make it constitutionally illegal? How about if they were real penises instead of pretend penises – would that make it all better?

What I’m trying to do here is remove the middle man. We all know that both men and women are capable of love, compassion, fidelity, and sometimes a desire to spend their lives growing old with another person. We also know that both men and women both have heads, shoulders, knees, and toes (knees and toes). So what does that leave? Penises and vaginas.

So while this gay marriage debate has never been about whether or not two reasonable, consenting adult males, who both have heads, shoulders, knees, and toes (knees and toes), could get married, why not just cut the shit? The debate has been about whether or not two reasonable, consenting adult males or females, who both happen to be connected to penises or vaginas, respectively, can get married.

I’m going to go ahead and say that it’s definitely OK for two penises to get married, just because we know there’s a place to put the rings.