The recent passage of gay marriage in the State of New York has forced my to think hard about the meaning of the word marriage. I think a good argument can be made that the law is an abuse of power because it ostensibly grants a right to do the logically impossible. This argument, however, depends on a certain way of determining meaning, the causal/intentional approach. On this approach, following Saul Kripke, what makes it true that water is H2O is that the word “water” was introduced to name the wet clear liquid found on this planet by some community in an intentional act that certifies the word “water” for that stuff. As a result of this act of naming, water rigidly designates that stuff and no other for all users of the word through time. Since it turns out that that stuff is essentially dibydrogen oxide, it thus means that water is H2O.

By the same view of meaning, the word “marriage” means a well defined social practice established within a tradition preserving community in which a man and women dedicate themselves excusively to one another for their mutual happiness, well being, and procreation and well being and good development of children. Both social practices and the traditions that make sense of and perpetuate them have enough stable objectivity to serve as a basis for a word to rigidly designate them. If we see that another traditional community has a social practice that functions identically and which is maintained and perpetuated and to which their language has also designated with a word, we may permit ourselves to think that word as synonomous with marriage. If we see another community in which a practice does function identically with marriage (such as the Native American Tribe in “Little Big Man”), we would not say the word “marriage” referred to that. Finally, having an account of how words aquire their meaning, we are able to make clear when word is being used metaphorically. So when the male Indian tells Dustin Hoffman’s character “I could be your wife”, we could take that as the English translation making a metaphorical use of the word “wife” to help the English listener make sense of a literal word for a different practice from marriage in the Indian’s own language.

On this view, then “same sex marriage” is logically impossible and on the principle that “may implies can”, there could be no possible right to same sex marriage.

However, another approach to meaning is through use. The first approach claims to tell us how words mean what the mean. This approach claims to tell us how to discover what words mean. This done by observing the contexts in which ordinary speakers use the word and what if anything is always correlated with the use.

In the case of “marriage”, we can see that one of the contexts of use is it’s use in law. But here we find that the law tracks with cases where people who are said to be married do not stay together or do not look after there mutual well being or have children or look after the well being of the children they have. Further, we see people having children who we would say are not married. This is reinforced by legal provisions like no-fault divorce. On this examination the only thing that seems to correlate with “marriage” is erotic attraction. So to be married is just to be living in such a way as to pursue a mutual erotic attraction as deeply as possible for as long as it lasts. Let’s say that’s what we believe “marriage” to mean.

Comparing this to the previous approach, we can see that the use based definition of marriage is a metaphorical use of the rigidly designated meaning of “marriage”. Of course, many words that have the meanings we associate them are metaphorical applications of preexisting words, but in which the original literal use has been lost. These are called “dead metaphors” and some think that contemporary language is nothing else but made up of words that dead metaphors that have been redesignated with a new literal meaning. So we might think that “marriage” is dead metaphor that no literally means something different from what it did.

On this account then, “same sex marriage” is not an oxymoron. In fact, given what “marriage” literally means (now), it wouuld truly be an injustice to disqualify people from appropriating it to themselves just because they are the same sex. People of the same sex are clearly capable of an intense erotic connection in each other as persons. And given the basic structure of entitlements the law recognizes for differently sexed married couples, understanding “marriage” as the law seems to do, there is no good reason to deny marriage and it’s entitlements to couples of the same sex. That would truly be “marriage” inequality. So the New York law is overdue.

And we can measure how overdue it us from the number of years between it’s inactment and the date which the term marriage changed it’s meaning. However, that’s not clear when that happened. But we can still recognize a paradigmatic shift in meaning from which it is clear from use that ge meaning has changed.

However, it is clear from this that it has only changed recently within the last several decades. Further, the original sense of marriage is still alive, in the synagogues, churches, and extended families that still persist in the vast farmlands and ethnic neighborhoods in the city who still see same sex marriage as an oxymoron and an imposition by the state against the freedom of conscience. The would be dead metaphor marriage seems to used in the law, the elite circles, and the state that has to turn a deaf ear to these other communities. The state seems to spearheading a forced change of meaning of marriage against the wishes of these comunities or even earlier legal traditions that still enshrine the original meaning.

One thing both sets of agencies have in common is an intolerance for allowing many equivocal uses of the word to coexist side by side, like marriage’ and marriage”. It’s clear that those in favor of legal recognition for gay marriage” are opposed as Progressives to marriage’ in principle. Meanwhile, upholders of marriage’ see marriage” as a bane even between different sexes. Still, each should allow for the co-existence of the other in a pluralistic society.

However, all this points to ways ordinary use analysis can get words wrong and also the dangers of granting the law the power to set the meaning of words outside of it’s own disciplines nomenclature.