Can the State define, nay alter, the meaning of words by law? At first sight, the ideaís absurd. If all English-speakers agree that red means red, albeit in many shades, no legislature, not God Almighty, can credibly lay down that from now on it means blue. Cat means cat, and may also be used for a tiger or lynx, but not for a cow. Run has umpteen senses, but no law can make it mean dream or discover. Users of a language can and do, over time, alter meanings. Parliaments shouldnít try.
Yet Britainís current government wants to legislate, and its House of Commons duly so voted last week, for what supporters of the idea call gay marriage and critics denounce not just as monstrous or sinful or bad for society but as linguistic nonsense: marriage, they say, means the union of one man with (usually) one woman; it just cannot mean the union of two people of the same sex.
These criticsí hostility does spring mostly from notions of monstrosity or sin or badness for society. But their linguistic point is not a simply silly one. I have some sympathy with it. I donít object to gay men or women being entitled to exactly the same rituals, or living in the almost-same relationships, as the rest of us. But can that really be called marriage? I wonder.
Yet thereís a weakness in the linguistic objection. In some fields, law has in fact laid down the meaning of words. Iím not thinking of Orwellian fictions like Ministry of Truth for Big Brotherís propaganda factory, or even the real-world Ministry of Defence (or, in Spanish, Ministerio de Defensa) widely used for the bodies that send troops to invade Iraq or the Islas Malvinas. Defence means defence, even if people disagree whether some given operation deserves the name. But lawmakers have defined simpler words than these.
Where does manslaughter stop and murder begin? What distinguishes offence from felony or crime? Different countriesí laws or courts offer different answers. And these are reflected in their citizensí speech. Indeed, in the speech of outsiders: if some French killing would count as murder in Britain, but not in France, neither I nor a Frenchman should or usually would call it murder or meurtre.
Apartheid South Africaís law called certain people Coloured. Well, all humans are coloured: my skin is pinko-grey, most readers of The Telegraph are brown, as are most Americans usually described as black. But Coloured, with a capital C, had a specific, if loose-edged, racial meaning in South Africa, albeit officials often disagreed whether it fitted this or that individual. And South African speech ó not just in English ó reflected that meaning.
Many countries have redefined adult, lowering the age at which, in law, you become one. Most of us think we know what death means, but physicians are not so sure, and some countries have defined it by law. In some, suicide is limited by the legalization of self-chosen euthanasia. Marriage too is less precise than its British champions claim. Normal English accepts polygamous marriage and bigamous marriage, either as the ceremony or the relationship, even if local law doesnít. These indeed involve people of opposite sexes, but not ó at least for polygamous marriage ó one man and one woman.
Yet Iím still uneasy. True, many laws laboriously list just which activities fall under some general heading. But that seldom affects the general sense of the word or words of the heading. The drastic change proposed for marriage does so. English-speakers will accept it, Iím sure. Many already have, including me. But I wish the State didnít feel entitled to tell us to. Weíre not infinitely far from 1984.