Last night, I had a dream in which I was attending a wedding. It was unlike any wedding that I’ve ever been to because it was a gay couple that was being married. During the ceremony, the officiant said that she was proud to be able to perform the ceremony, now that marriage equality has been extended to all couples, regardless of gender, in all fifty states of the USA.
My parents were also at the wedding. Even in a dream’s internal logic, this made no sense. From what I know about my father, he would never attend a wedding of this kind. After the ceremony ended and the party began, I found my parents and kept saying to them, “Sorry, I’m so sorry.” Again and again and again.
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A retronym is a word or phrase that is coined in order to differentiate between a new version of something and an older one. A classic example is acoustic guitar, in which the modifier acoustic only came into use after electric guitars were invented. Another retronym I like is traditional characters, referring to the writing system of the Chinese languages before government-mandated language reforms brought us simplified characters.
One retronym I do not like is traditional marriage, one of several ways of referring to the social and/or religious contractual union between… two people. This term is the coinage of people who wanted to keep the legal definition of marriage more conservative, who have balked at the possibility of what has since become known as same-sex marriage or gay marriage.
Semantics is powerful, isn’t it? On one side, two men or two women who want to tie the knot have been seen as defying ancient traditions that absolutely should not be breached. On the other, gay couples have insisted that they want to extend equality and human rights to all American citizens, who constitutionally deserve it. Over the past ten years, as the debate has turned into a major culture war, the two sides have done a very good job, linguistically speaking, of choosing and creating words that render their own views in the most positive light while subtly (or not-so-subtly) vilifying the other’s.
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I see this war of words happening in Korea right now. Pride Month in the ROK has been rocky at best, as conservative Christians have taken to the streets to protest every event. They have couched their cause in terms of patriotism (“Love Your Country”), anti-imperialism (“Out with foreign corruption”), and morality (“Homosexuality is a sin”). LGBTQ rights activists in Korea, in turn, have taken the route of pride, revolution, and love above all else. It’s very interesting to see what buzzwords take hold among crowds and communities, to notice what kinds of protest and support signs I see most often and wonder what makes them so popular.
The big event is here today: Seoul’s Pride Parade. All day, the festival will be taking place at Seoul Plaza, next to City Hall, with hundreds of booths set up, many performances, and finally the evening parade. You can bet that there will be thousands of protesters to match the thousands of LGBTQ people and allies. It’s a showdown waiting to happen.
I will be there, ready with a smile and a rainbow flag if I can get ahold of one. Despite the linguistic barrier that exists between me and the majority of this country, I can still show my support through symbols and demonstrate my love of God and all his children through my actions. Back home in the US, though, I also have the privilege of being able to use my words to advocate the cause I believe in.
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And back home in the US, a major cultural tide has shifted. Though we are still a long way off1 from true and complete equality, the victory of love over bigotry (or, to use the other side’s vocabulary, of sin over righteousness) means that we might see a slow change in language over the next few years. It is my hope that with the expansion of marriage to include same-sex couples, we can begin to call what was once same-sex marriage, quite simply, marriage.
Of course, as a linguistic presciptivist by training, I don’t feel totally comfortable with advocating for the social extinction of a word, even one I dislike. But I don’t deny that I will personally feel better when the terms that now divide us are one day found only in old textbooks about American history.
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When I awoke from my dream this morning, I woke up crying, my body shuddering with great, dry sobs. I couldn’t remember where I was or what had just happened. Then, I replayed what my father had said to me just moments before the dream vanished: “Why are you apologizing? What do you have to be sorry for?”
And then I got up, got dressed, and went to Pride.
Word of the Day: heartsease is a type of wildflower related to the pansy. It has a history of use in folk medicine as a way to relieve many ailments such as asthma and skin diseases, which explains the flower’s common name. Another name for heartsease is love-in-idleness, which is the flower used by Oberon to make the lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream go just a bit crazy. The word pansy comes from the French pensée, which means “thought,” and is related to its use as a symbol of remembrance, most recently in honor of victims of homophobia.
Lastly, heartsease has been used as a synonym for “peace of mind.”
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1This link is to an Onion piece, which is satire. But it makes a good point. Here’s a more serious and specific piece/listicle from Buzzfeed.