Melbourne rally for marriage equality. Photo by Paris Buttfield-Addison, Wikimedia commons
Word watch: The language of marriage equality
Last year’s postal survey evoked the theme of a ‘fair go’, as Australian National Dictionary editor Dr Amanda Laugesen, BA (Hons) ’97, PhD ’01 explains.
One of the defining moments of 2017 for Australia was the success of the ‘yes’ campaign in the controversial postal survey on changing the marriage act to permit same-sex couples to wed. This campaign generated a range of words, terms, and – reflecting the campaign as waged through social media – hashtags.
The campaign itself was to do with marriage equality or same-sex marriage. In the media, same-sex marriage was often abbreviated to SSM.
The terms same-sex marriage and marriage equality have been especially common since around 2011 in the English-speaking mainstream media, and reflect the way laws have changed over the last decade to allow gay marriage. Marriage equality, unsurprisingly, became especially common in the Australian media during the campaign.
Social media is often a site of lexical innovation. The ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigns used social media to sell their message.
The ‘yes’ campaign generated a number of hashtags to support the push to change the law, including #sayyes, #loveislove, #equalmarriage and #yesaustralia.
The ‘no’ campaign in contrast struggled to find a simple message – beyond #voteno – to argue their case, which turned on the vote being about issues such as freedom of speech, conscience, and religion.
However, the ‘no’ campaign used the slogan ‘it’s ok to say no’ in its advertising. Once the vote went decisively in favour of the ‘yes’ campaign, a trending hashtag was #equalmeansequal.
The rhetoric of politicians, especially the Prime Minister, is worth noting.
Malcolm Turnbull, in his address to the nation after the results of the postal survey were announced by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, strongly invoked the idea of fairness.
He called on a deeply entrenched notion in Australian culture, the fair go: “ … we are a fair nation, there is nothing more Australian than a fair go, there's nothing more Australian than equality and mutual respect and everyone has had their say … . Get on with it and get this done, it's fair!”
The debates around the marriage equality campaign also called attention to the long history of gay rights activism in Australia. One of the terms that made the press through 2016 and 2017 was 78er.
This is a reference to a person who had been involved in the 1978 gay rights protest held in Darlinghurst, Sydney, in solidarity with American activists. This march has since been identified as the origin of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.
As gay marriage has become legalised in a number of countries, the definition of marriage in our dictionaries has changed. The Australian Pocket Oxford Dictionary, as of our seventh edition published in 2013, redefined marriage as ‘the formal union of two people, typically as recognised by law’.
Our other dictionaries have similarly been updated; in addition, we have also updated our definitions of fiancé and fiancée, and husband and wife.
The Australian National Dictionary (first edition) can be accessed online at bit.ly/rep_AND