While I was off on my long sabbatical, the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill passed its first reading in the New Zealand Parliament. It is now with Select Committee; submissions are due on 26 October – in a little over three weeks.
There are a few things I’d like to say about the bill. I want to query the idea that marriage is “a fundamental human right”. I also want to ask what problem is being solved by this piece of legislation, whether the problem needs to be solved, and whether the bill is the most cost-effective solution. I’ll get to those posts in time.
But for now, I’d just like to comment on the precedent that would be set if Parliament is able to change the meaning of an English word – lexicological evolution by legislative fiat.
I’ve heard it said that ‘marriage’ means different things in different cultures. This sounds reasonable on the surface, but falls apart as soon as we look more closely. Of course, other cultures have other practices. But they also have words in their own languages for those practices.
Wikipedia lists a whole heap of alternative arrangements: same-sex, multiple partners of either or both genders, human-animal, human-ghost (or human-deceased person), and many more.
I’d like you to note that many of these are called ‘[some modifying describer] marriage’. That’s important. Since the word first entered our language in the twelth century, ‘marriage’ with no modifying describer means one man and one woman in a legally recognised formal relationship that involves certain rights and duties, including copulation and responsibilities towards any children thereby conceived. So did the precursor word in Old French, and its precursor in Latin.
There have been a lot of words added as modifying describers. Common-law marriage means a relationship that takes its legal status from the opinions of the neighbours rather than exchanged promises in front of a legally-approved witness. Fleet marriage means going through a marriage ceremony in front of a someone who is not a marriage celebrant, in order to deceive the other party. Trial marriage means living together as man and wife in order to see how things work. The very fact that the modifier is needed shows that our culture recognises such relationships as different in fact and in essence from marriage itself.
We’ve seen a number of attempts at social engineering by changing the meaning of words. The words ‘mother’ and ‘father’ are today replaced with the cold and neutral ‘caregiver’. The word ‘fat’ is becoming ‘person of size’. I’m happy that ‘firemen’ are ‘firefighters’, and I’ve got over the hijacking of a common three-letter word that used to mean carefree, bright, and showy. But all of these meaning changes happened in the language marketplace – in everyday conversation, in academic and literary works, in mainstream media.
Changing the meaning of words by legislation is a doublespeak scenario from Orwell’s 1984. I want no part of it.