My friend and mentor Darrow Miller speaks of the power of words to shape culture. “When God spoke,” Darrow is fond of saying, “He created the universe. When man, who is made in God’s image, speaks, he creates culture.” Our minds and our words have the power to form and shape not only the world we live in, but also the world that our children and their children will inherit. In short, words are incredibly powerful things.
I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when I did a mini-study on the word “marriage.” What I discovered shocked me. No longer is the concept of “words shaping culture” an abstract notion. It is now very real. What I discovered is that as the word “marriage” was redefined, there was a direct correlation to specific changes in attitude and behavior with regards to marriage that, in turn, had tragic and disastrous consequences on people’s lives, families, and the larger culture.
If you are not familiar with Noah Webster’s 1828 Dictionary of the American Language, I highly recommend you buy a copy. Unlike contemporary dictionaries, it is firmly rooted in a biblical worldview, and thus words and concepts contained in the Bible (such as marriage) retain their historical, biblical content. As American culture has secularized, the Biblical basis of these words has been stripped away leading to entirely new definitions. The word “marriage” provides a classic case study. Here’s how Webster’s 1828 Dictionary defines marriage:
“The act of uniting a man and woman for life; wedlock; the legal union of man and woman for life. Marriage is a contract both civil and religious by which parties engage to live together in mutual affection and fidelity, till death shall separate them. Marriage was instituted by God himself for the purpose of preventing the promiscuous intercourse of the sexes, for promoting domestic felicity, and for securing the maintenance and education of children.”
What an incredibly rich definition! Here are the highlights:
- Marriage is between “man and woman”
- It is “a contract” that is both legal/civil AND religious
- It is “for life . . . till death shall separate”
- It is instituted by God
- It has three distinct purposes (1) Preventing the promiscuous intercourse of the sexes, (2) Promoting domestic felicity or happiness, and (3) Protecting, providing for, and educating children.
Now let’s jump forward 156 years and look at how marriage is defined in Merriam-Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary from 1984, the dictionary I used in college. In its introduction, the authors make this statement: “[This dictionary is] meant to serve the general public as its chief source of information about the words of our language.” Its “chief source.” This is a bold claim to intellectual authority. So how did these cultural authorities of our language define marriage? Here it is:
“The mutual relation of husband and wife; wedlock: the institution whereby men and women are joined in a special kind of social and legal dependence for the purpose of founding and maintaining of a family.”
While there is some distant echo of Webster’s 1828 definition, this is a dramatically different definition. Here’s a brief comparison:
- While man and woman (now “husband and wife”) is retained, “legal union” both “civil and religious” is replaced by “social and legal dependence.” Gone is the concept of “contract,” and gone is the understanding that this is a religious as well as civil arrangement. Now it is merely “social and legal.”
- Gone is any mention of God or the Biblical or religious roots of marriage. Thus we are left to assume that marriage is a man-made arrangement that we can re-make as we wish. Here we see the secularization of American culture reflected in the secularization in the definition of marriage.
- Webster’s 1828 gives three distinct purposes for marriage. By 1984, the three have been reduced to only one purpose: the “founding and maintaining of a family.” Gone is the concept of the education of children. Gone is the concept marriage as a bulwark against sexual promiscuity. Gone is the concept of marriage as a source of domestic happiness.
If words shape cultures, how did this redefinition re-shape American culture?
-Scott D. Allen