I have an undergraduate degree in Linguistics. You need to understand that about me right off the top.
It means that I have been taught to approach language in very particular ways: scientific and analytical ways.

But, having told you that about me, I’m going to confess something, I really don’t get how people in the present discussion in the Presbyterian Church in Canada regarding LGBTQ issues get hung up over a definition.

For example, in a recent blog post, Roland De Vries wrote this:

The Life and Mission Agency of The Presbyterian Church in Canada is presenting the following recommendation to the General Assembly of the denomination in two weeks time.

That clergy in The Presbyterian Church in Canada be permitted for pastoral reasons to bless same sex marriages conducted by civil authorities.

… there are serious problems with this recommendation, and perhaps the most serious problem is that it is not the half-measure it purports to be. In fact, if this recommendation is passed, then the conversation about the redefinition of marriage within The Presbyterian Church in Canada will be over, because it will have happened.

Now, I do understand that the idea of blessing same sex marriages that have already been conducted by civil authorities for pastoral reasons is a big change. It is controversial and, while it would no doubt be warmly welcomed by some, there are others who would find that it goes too far, even if they would not personally be compelled to participate or bless themselves. I expect that there will be worthwhile debate about the proposed motion as there should be.

But why do people always bring up this issue of “changing the definition of marriage.” It seems to come up all the time. De Vries is but one example of many who seem to have a fear of changing definitions. This is what I don’t really understand as a linguist.

What is a definition:

Many people seem to see dictionaries as prescriptive documents. That is, the expect the book to prescribe all acceptable usage of a word. But this is not what a dictionary is designed to do.

Dictionaries are intentionally descriptive documents. They simply catalog all of the uses of a word and its meaning as found in literature and common usage. A dictionary definition makes no judgment on how a word should be used or what it should mean. It simply reports to us on how the word is actually used.

For example, Dictionary.com gives this as the definition of the word, literally:

in the literally or strict sense.

but it also adds this usage note:

Since the early 19th century, literally has been widely used as an intensifier meaning “in effect, virtually,” a sense that contradicts the earlier meaning“actually, without exaggeration”: The senator was literally buried alive in the Iowa primaries. The parties were literally trading horses in an effort to reach a compromise.The use is often criticized; nevertheless, it appears in all but the most carefully edited writing.

Because in real life and in literature people actually use the word “literally” to mean something that is essentially completely opposite from the original meaning of the word, the dictionary simply acknowledges that such a meaning is possible. It makes no judgment and on actual usage. That is exactly what a dictionary is supposed to do.

What is more, it is clear that the dictionary is quite correct in offering both meanings because English speakers who hear the phrase, “The senator was literally buried alive in the Iowa primaries,” actually understand what it means. They might not like the usage and may studiously avoid using it themselves, but they still understand it because they are contemporary English speakers nad have heard that usage before.

What I am saying is that there is no authority that we can appeal to say what is a correct usage and meaning and what is incorrect other than what is commonly said, written and understood.You may write all the letters of complaint you like to the people who make the dictionary but they cannot change the entry for the word because as soon as they do so, their dictionary no longer reflects actual usage and becomes quite useless to anyone who uses it when they are trying to understand the phrase, “The senator was literally buried alive in the Iowa primaries,”

The definition of marriage

According to such these criteria, if we ask what the definition of marriage is, the answer is clear. Marriage has already been “redefined” for some time to include the possibility of same sex marriage. The mere fact that people understand what is meant when they hear the phrase “same sex marriage” means that they already understand the definition.  The usage is also widely attested in literature and in law.

For that matter, you cannot say, “I don’t agree with same sex marriage” or “I don’t approve of same sex marriage,” without accepting the basic definition. You may not like it, but you cannot speak of the phenomenon without relying on the fact that people will understand what you mean when you say it. That is why words have meaning in the first place.

So even if in the end the Presbyterian Church were to decide to completely ban any participation in the blessing of same sex marriages, it would have to accept the possible definition of marriage that is commonly used in our culture to do so. There are certainly theological issues at stake, but there are no semantic issues at stake (no questions of meaning).

Using the Bible as a dictionary

Of course, some might object and say that the Bible is, as far as they are concerned, a dictionary. What is more, they will claim that it is a prescriptive dictionary and that if the Bible doesn’t define a word in a certain way then such a definition is not valid. But, of course, we do not use the Bible as a dictionary for any other words. And it certainly is not written as a dictionary anyways. It would, in fact, be a very foolish way to use a book so rich in wisdom and meaning as a mere rule book to define words anyways.

So I really don’t get it. There may be issues to disagree over, sure, but the definition of a word that everyone can understand and use whether they like it or not, what is the point of that?