One Equal World

Social Change Sparks Important Linguistic Revision

Posted on: August 7, 2013

domino effect

Universal equality may be gaining momentum legislatively, but actual social change happens slowly.
Image: Shutterstock

While the gay rights movement appears to be engaged in a domino effect towards universal equality, it is important to remember that there is a huge difference between the implications of legislative, versus social change. Laws can be made to protect the rights of same sex couples and their families, but this doesn’t mean that their quality of life will automatically improve. Social change is a slow, tiresome thing to create; it is easier to have rights sealed on paper than it is to change the mind of hateful, homophobic people.

Social change towards human equality can be achieved when successfully built upon many complex facets. Legislative change is huge, and this is something that is being accomplished in many places around the world. Visibility for LGBT people – in media, books, as leaders and outwardly gay or lesbian public figures, is another critical component. Language is also an incredibly important tool for social change. Our English-speaking culture relies on agreed-upon definitions of words, using these definitions to influence our understanding of the world around us, of each other.

Over the last few decades, scholars have worked tirelessly to create social change by broadening definitions of words as we know them. For instance, the definition of “woman” in the Oxford English Dictionary is “an adult human female” (a noun), but is also surrounded by examples that pertain to motherhood, sexuality, and domesticity. “Woman” in English-speaking culture also has many social implications that limit the experience of women.

definition of marriage

The OED has decided to redefine the word “marriage” to be inclusive.
Image: Shutterstock

“Marriage” is another word that’s definition has long been limiting for same sex couples, something that also impacts social understandings. Currently, the Oxford English Dictionary defines marriage as a “formal union of a man and a woman, typically as recognized by law, by which they become husband and wife.” Reportedly however, the OED plans to amend this definition, in light of recent changes in legislation that allow same-sex weddings in England and Wales. The definition, still undergoing drafts, will soon include same-sex couples, widening the definition to be inclusive of the gay and lesbian-identified people.

In America, marriage equality activists like Ken Mehlman know that the battle for social change isn’t over, and that there’s still “a lot of work to do.” However, with amendments in legislature continuing to gain momentum, and changes being made to the very dictionary-definition of marriage, the future certainly looks a little brighter.


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