Spouse vocabulary

The AP Stylebook, which I often mock for its attention to entirely inconsequential details and its belief that it could legislate these details for writers all over the US, sometimes takes on somewhat weightier matters. Today, a revision:

husband, wife: Regardless of sexual orientation, husband or wife is acceptable in all references to individuals in any legally recognized marriage. Spouse or partner may be used if requested.

This is nicely nuanced in one way: it says that husband and wife are acceptable, but doesn’t require those usages, offering alternatives. On the other hand, it assumes (without mentioning it) that husband and wife will be used with appropriate sex reference (husband for a man, wife for a woman), rather than by role reference (husband for the more dominant partner, wife for the more submissive partner, leaving a lot of room for deciding on what constitutes dominance/submission).

Given the spread of same-sex marriage in jurisdictions around the world, it’s time to get the vocabulary in synch with the realities. But dictionaries and other references move slowly.

We get older definitions of husband like ‘a woman’s partner in marriage’ (Collins, 2003) and ‘a married man considered in relation to his wife’ (NOAD3, 2010), but then eventually ‘a man joined to another person in marriage; a male spouse” (AHD5, 2011), which nails it.

All of this depends on marriage having a reading ‘civil marriage’, that is, a legal relationship established by the state. (This is a claim that most Western Europeans would find totally unremarkable.) There can be other readings, of course, but there certainly is this one, and the adjustment in the AHD definition is designed to accommodate changes in the law.

Then there’s the National Organization for Marriage, sometimes characterized as a group fighting same-sex marriage, but often presenting itself as denying that the word marriage *can mean* anything other than the one true meaning they assign to it; on this account, there is simply no such thing as same-sex marriage, *by definition*. Linguistic looniness.


One Response to “Spouse vocabulary”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    A thoughtful column by Nathaniel Frank in the Los Angeles Times, here.

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