Word of the Month: Marriage

The issue of gay marriage has been much in the news of late and the topic promises to be a hot-button political issue in the 2004 US presidential election. At issue are the questions of whether and how the state should recognize homosexual unions.Therefore, our word of the month is:

marriage, n., the condition of being husband and wife, since 1975 sometimes applied to same-sex couples. Also applied to the ceremony and celebrations associated with the beginning of such a union. Also applied to other forms of relationship, often with a modifer, e.g., plural marriage. Since c.1400, the word has been applied figuratively to any close union or blending of any two things. The word dates to c.1300 and is from the Anglo-Norman mariage. Ultimately it is from the classical Latin verb maritare, to marry, used to refer to people, animals, and the crossing of grapes in viticulture and the nouns maritus/marita, husband/wife.

Currently, only Vermont allows gay couples to form “civil unions.” This statute was signed into law by Democratic presidential contender Howard Dean when he was governor of that state. In November, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that restricting marriage to heterosexual couples violates the state constitution and gave the legislature six months to rectify the inequity. In the United States, the regulation of marriage is traditionally a state function and there is little federal law on the subject. There is a 1996 law, however, that restricts marriage to heterosexual couples for purposes of federal benefits such as Social Security and pensions and gives states the ability to refuse to recognize gay marriages solemnized in other states.

Courts in Ontario, British Columbia, and Quebec have ruled that heterosexual-only marriage laws are discriminatory and it appears as if Canada will rewrite its marriage laws to permit gay marriages in the coming year. At present, the Netherlands and Belgium are the only countries that grant identical marriage rights to both gays and heterosexuals.

The heart of the issue is one of semantics. What exactly do we mean by the word marriage? Regular readers of Wordorigins.org are no doubt aware that a word’s meaning is determined by usage, not etymology. If we extend the meaning of marriage to include gay unions, then that is what the word means. But it is interesting to look at where the word comes from and how it has been traditionally used.

In the following pages, we examine words that are associated with the institution of marriage.

annul, v., to reduce to nothing, to eliminate. From the Old French annulle and Latin annullare, to make into nothing. In English use since c.1400. The term is used in reference to marriage meaning to declare that a legal marriage never actually existed.

bride, n., a woman about to be or recently married. From the Old English brýd, c.1000.

civil union, n., a legal joining of two individuals that confers all the legal rights of marriage, but lacking a spiritual or religious dimension. In use since at least 1992:  “Well, marriage is not the correct word or concept; but there is indeed a project of a proposition of law [in France] for a so-called ‘civil union’ contract that would include same-sex couples.” 12 March 1992, soc.motss.

cohabit, v., to live together in sexual relationship, but without the legal sanction of marriage. Since c.1530.

common-law marriage, n., a cohabiting relationship that gains legal sanction through longevity. Common Law is the non-statutory law of England (also used as a basis for law in the United States, sans Louisiana), embodied in old commentaries and judicial precedence. Common law marriage is no longer a recognized legal concept in the United Kingdom and most of the United States. From 1909.

de facto union, n., legal term used in Quebec to denote a cohabiting relationship and the limited rights such a union has under Quebec law.

Defense of Marriage Act, prop.n., also DOMA, 1996 US federal law that exempts states from the requirement to recognize same-sex marriages granted by other states. The US Constitution requires states to give “full faith and credit” to the acts and pronouncements of other states, but also gives Congress some ability to define the parameters of such recognition. The constitutionality of DOMA is an open question.

divorce, n. & v., the legal dissolution of a marriage, the separation of any two things united things, to dissolve a marriage or other union. In English use since 1377. From the French, ultimately from the Latin divortium, which in turn is from divertere, to turn aside. This latter was specifically used in Latin to denote a woman leaving her husband.

domestic partnership, n., a legal union of two people who live together but are not necessarily in a sexual relationship. Generally, a domestic partnership laws do not confer all the rights of a marriage or civil union. In use since 1985 to denote informal arrangements and 1990 as a legal term.

engage, v., to pledge, to bind by contract (1525), specifically to bind in a promise of marriage (1727). From the French engage (en- + gage, pledge).

family, n., a group of people closely related by blood or by close emotional ties. From the Latin familia, household, famulus, servant. The current sense is relatively recent. The word has been in English use since c.1400, the original sense being the servants in a household. By 1545, the term had expanded to include the spouse and children as well as servants. By 1667 the word was being used to include only those related by blood. Related senses include those descended from a common ancestor, a house or lineage, c.1425, and a group of similar or related things, 1611.

nuclear family, n., a social unit consisting of husband and wife and their children, 1949. From the sense of nuclear meaning central, not relating to atomic theory.

gay marriage, n., a legally sanctioned homosexual union, from at least 1984.

groom, n., a man about to be or recently married, a clipping of bridegroom, from the Old English brýdguma. Guma is an Old English poetic word for man. The word was later folk-etymologized into the modern groom through association with that word meaning a type of servant.

homophobia, n., fear toward or hatred of homosexuals. From homo[sexual] + phobia, 1969.

homosexual, adj. & n., pertaining to sexual desires toward or activities with others of the same sex, those who have such desires or engage in such activities, esp. to the exclusion of heterosexual relationships. 1892, from homo- (same) + sexual.

homosexual marriage, n., a long-term cohabiting relationship between members of the same sex, also used recently to refer to a legally sanctioned union. Cited in the OED3 as early as 1955, that early citation has the word “marriage” in quotation remarks.

husband, n., a married man. From the Old English húsbonda, hús (house) + bunda, peasant. Originally (c.1000), the word meant the male head of a household, a freeholder. The current sense dates to c.1290.

lesbian, adj. & n., pertaining to female homosexuality, a female homosexual. Adjectival use is from 1890, the noun is from 1925. The term is a reference to the ancient poet Sappho, a resident of the island of Lesbos in Greece, who allegedly had female lovers (“allegedly” because very little is actually known about her other than fragments of her poetry).

life partner, n., a participant in a long-term cohabiting relationship, esp. a homosexual one. Since at least 1983.

long-time companion, a participant in a long-term cohabiting relationship, esp. a homosexual one. Since at least 1989.

matrimony, n., marriage, 1357. From the Anglo-Norman and ultimately from the Latin matri- (mother) + monium (state or condition).

nuptial, adj. & n., pertaining to marriage or the marriage ceremony, the marriage ceremony itself, 1490. From French, ultimately from the Latin nuptialis, wedding.

significant other, n., a participant in an established romantic or sexual relationship. Originally a sociological term (1940) for a person with great influence over another, the term acquired the current meaning c.1977. Often used in social situations where one wishes to be inclusive or ambiguous over the exact nature of the relationship.

inamorata, n., mistress, girlfriend. From the Italian, 1651.

mistress, n., a governess, obs. (1330); a female head of household, including women who share this authority with a man (c.1375), this sense survives mainly in the abbreviation Mrs.; a woman involved in a romantic relationship with a man, esp. one married to another (c.1425), now the primary sense; a female dominant partner in a sadomasochistic relationship, 1921. From the Anglo-Norman maistresse, the feminine counterpart to master.

fiancé/fiancée, n., a person (man/woman respectively) engaged to marry. From the French, 1853.

wed, v., to marry. From the Old English weddian, c.1000. The original English sense was to make a pledge, esp. one of marriage. Early use applied to the man only, making a pledge to support a woman. By c.1400 applied to both sexes and the mutual act.

wife, n., a married woman. From the Old English wif, c.725. Originally, the word simply meant a woman. By c.888 it had developed the modern sense of a married woman.

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