25 May 2012

Gay or equal marriage?

The government in the UK has recently issued a discussion document about “gay marriage”, though the proposals will only apply to England and Wales. There has been lots of criticism of this proposal, though I hadn’t given it much thought until I saw Remittance Girl’s blog piece, in which she argued that trying to attack bible-thumping opponents with more bible-thumping wouldn’t work.

The discussion document gives a very clear view of just what marriage is, what a civil partnership is, what the differences are, and what the proposed changes mean in terms of today’s legislation.

So, just what is the fuss about? I’ve tried to clarify my views, more specifically with regard to the position in England and Wales. What is marriage, and why shouldn’t be be about equality?


The standard narrative describes (“straight”) marriage beginning around the time of the change from a hunter/gatherer existence to one of settled agriculture. It’s difficult to know whether the hunter/gatherers, bands of up to about 150 people, practiced pair-bonding of if they were sharing all their resources.

Settled agriculture required division of labour, the emergence of specialised trades, and the beginnings of the concepts of “property”, “wealth” and “paternity”. The man would want to know that his work and wealth, when inherited by his children,  would go to people who were indubitably his children, not someone else’s. And that requirement certainly required monogamy — at least on the wife’s side. So, marriage and sex (or female exclusivity) seem to have been intertwined from an early stage.

Marriage was a compact; the man’s labours and the woman’s child bearing and rearing. If you ask why the paternity of the children was so vital, why a patriarchy was so concerned on it, my answer is that I don’t know. A child’s maternity is never in doubt, but it’s paternity clearly can be. So why not make it easier, and have a matriarchy; again, I don’t know.

Paternity and patriarchy have been accepted as “normal” in most subsequent societies; and marriage continued as a contract concerned as much with progeny as with wealth and dynasty. “Love” as the basis for marriage is a very recent idea; our ancestors may well have been fond of their spouses, but the didn’t always marry for love. And if they wanted love and affection, well there were always courtesans, catamites and gigolos.

Homosexual affection and love was well recognised in ancient times; there were, for example, armies with paired males, the theory being that the two lovers would fight better, to protect the other.

Religion and marriage

If we were all once pagans, a dominant influence in the past few millennia has been religions in the Judeo-Abrahamic tradition. In the western world we were all once catholic; starting with St Paul (who the arch-atheist Richard Dawkins described as “inventing Christianity”), a vast theological corpus was erected by Saints Jerome, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas et al. Curiously, such theology says that the ultimate Christianity is abstinence; but if that’s too difficult, then heterosexual marriage is sort of acceptable. Abstinence, if religiously practiced, would see the end of Christianity. Power and control; and all written by men.  Saint Thecla, an early priestess and follower of St Paul appears in the Apocrypha, but has otherwise vanished.

Catholic England split from Rome because the Pope wouldn’t grant Henry an annulment; Henry’s problem was that he wanted a male heir. Henry styled himself as head of the church in England; the monarch still is. Rather oddly, during Henry’s difficulties, Martin Luther said that Henry could marry bigamously. Two CoE archbishops and 24 bishops still sit in the UK legislature.

The Church of England carries a lot of theology of catholic origin; marriage was first declared a sacrament during the 11/12th century. The CoE’s expressed position on marriage is in the Book of Common Prayer. After a preamble, it says that marriage is for:

  1.  Progeny
  2. Avoidance of sin and fornication
  3. Mutual comfort and support

The first edition of the Book of Common Prayer was issued in the mid 16th century. At that time, religious observance was compulsory, and transgressors were dealt with in church courts; authority passed later to the civil courts. Adultery could be a capital offence; the last judicial hanging for sodomy in England was in the 1830s. (It wasn’t any more tolerant in the US.)


It was once enough to make a declaration before witnesses for a marriage to be valid. In 1753, Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act regulated who could marry, when and by whom. The present legislation is from 1949. A religious marriage is possible:

  1. In a Church of England ceremony
  2. In a Jewish ceremony
  3. In a Quaker ceremony.

Other marriages may take place in churches, but it is the declaration and the signing of the register which legalises it; the priest, pastor etc is an agent of the state, a licensed registrar. Or, a in a civil ceremony, a registrar requires a declaration from a couple, and the signing of the register; there can be no religious ceremonial.

Gay Marriage

There is no such thing as gay marriage at present in the UK. Instead, a couple go to the registrar’s office, and sign the book; there is no declaration. Afterwards, they can describe themselves as being in a “civil partnership”. This gives them most, but not all, the privileges of marriage.

The present discussion is about equality as much as it is about marriage; the intention is to make “straight” and “gay” marriage equal in status before the law. Gay or equal marriage will only be legally possible in civil setting, in a register office or other licenced place. Gay marriage will not be possible as a religious ceremony, or in a church.


In the UK, the proposals for “gay” marriage are about equality with “straight” marriage; and the proposals only apply to civil ceremonies. As there are no religious implications, there cannot be any sensible, coherent, cogent religious arguments against it or equality.

Further, any religious arguments are really nebulous; there is little clear instruction in the bible. Christian theology is an artefact, it has evolved over time, and it could and should evolve further. Do we, for instance, really avoid fornication these days? How many of us believe in sin?

And as for progeny: adoption is commonplace these days. Comfort and support is what we would all like, no matter who we are.

14 May 2012

Sheughs, stoons and cute hoors

American English, so those who know about these things tell us, is a strong language. New words appear, older words have newer meanings attached to them and all integrate rapidly into the language; think of how the word gay changed its meaning. And there are no nouns that can’t be verbed. British English is a weak language; neologisms are seen as effeminate, feeble things, best left to those who can’t use a dictionary or thesaurus.

There are some American words whose meanings isn’t immediately clear, at least not to me. I came across Bazinga recently, and had to be told that it was Bingo! A Brit might have said Eureka!

Irish English tends to coin new phrases rather than words; there are plenty of words around, many of them unknown to the outside world. And in the north, the ability to speak words without the benefit of vowels and through clenched teeth, almost like a ventriloquist, makes understanding even more difficult for the foreigner. Northern Ireland gets reduced to Norn Iron.

Even within Norn Iron, there are words which have a limited geographical spread. I first heard forenenst many years ago from an elderly lady in Belfast who had, she said, wrought for my grandfather. Forenenst conventionally means “opposite”, “away from”, but the closest I can get to it is “vis-à-vis”. I don’t think yous have to be facing one another to be forenenst. I asked her what the opposite of forenenst was; after a short pause, she said it was begannt*. While forenenst is easily found in dictionaries, I have never found begannt. And forenenst is almost unknown today, certainly out in the western sticks.

Yous is the plural of you; in standard English ‘you’ is singular or plural. But here it seems that the Irish, being forced to learn English and knowing that most English plurals are made by adding an ’s’, made a separate plural where none had previously existed. And if yous isn’t specific enough, then address a group as yous’ns.

You might think you know what a ditch is; the drainage channel at the edge of a field. Well, not here it isn’t. Here, the excavated channel is a sheugh, and the earth that you’ve piled up alongside it is the ditch. And the centre of the ditch forms the field boundary.

Be careful not to injure yourself while digging the sheugh, for if you do, I hope you are a good tholer, well able to endure the stoons of pain. And be sure to dress any would well, less it starts to beel.

After that activity, you might need refreshment at the pub. Notwithstanding the advance of the French Revolutionary metric system, Guinness is still sold in pints. But don’t be a wimp and ask for a glass of Guinness, as you’ll get half what you expected.

Listen to the craic (forgetting that craic is an Irish back-formation from crack). If you were in the South, as opposed to the North, you might hear so-and-so being described as a cute hoor. Now, don’t get that wrong, they aren’t discussing the talents of the local floozie.

Political corruption was/is a sad fact of life in The State — The Republic of Ireland — and many politicians have done financially very well for themselves and their cronies. A cute hoor is such a (male) politician, perhaps before he’s been disgraced, who is regarded with a mixture of awe and jealousy.

*Begannt. I don’t know if this is the “correct” spelling, I reproduce it as I heard it. The old lady did pronounce forenenst, which seems to be the established spelling, as fernenst.

02 May 2012

Offal: a curious word choice

“She orders offal…”

Julie Bindel and Brooke Magnanti were having lunch. Ms Bindel is a Guardian journalist and a “radical feminist”; Dr Magnanti has just published a book called The Sex Myth, and was once the blogger known as Belle de Jour. An unlikely meeting you might think between an opponent of prostitution because it degrades women who are only now escaping from the oppression of the patriarchy, and a self-confessed one-time escort.

They’re not likely to have much — if anything — in common, and the report of the meeting seems to confirm this. It’s here, and well worth reading, and don’t forget to look at the comments.

I said “report” because the article isn’t really a book review, nor is it quite the usual interview that you read in the papers; and it certainly isn’t unbiased.

But it was the odd use of the word “offal” that first caught my attention. We all know that it refers to the innards of animals, and I certainly thought it had rather negative associations; not a neutral descriptor.

A quick check in several dictionaries confirms this. It’s cognate with the German Abfall which means waste; modern meanings include parts of an animal that are discarded, parts that are inedible, parts that are waste.

And there is a distinct similarity in pronunciation between “offal” and “awful”.

So why say “offal” when you could have said “calves’ liver” which was the dish chosen?

There’s another revealing statement just below the “offal” one. Ms Bindel says:

“I begin by asking her about the the mistakes that appear throughout her work…”

 I don’t know about you, but I remember being taught that when you critique someone’s work, you start by mentioning the things that were done well, before going into those that could be improved — or here, the things that you don’t agree with. What you don’t do is start with a confrontation. Surely, you want to relax your interviewee and to understand their point of view — even if you don’t agree with it. But they are as entitled to their view as much as you are, and as entitled to be heard. And only then can you rubbish it.

By using a word as loaded as “offal” Ms Bindel has shown that the rigidity of her radical feminist views blinds her to the opinions of others. Alas, this is an all too common problem.

You could almost say that using “offal” is a Freudian slip; but perhaps here it was deliberate.

James Joyce, in Ulysses, wrote:

“Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls.”

Now, Joyce was a master wordsmith. He didn’t use “offal” here because he knew that “offal” only refers to animals; it doesn’t include birds. Joyce always knew exactly the right word to use to express himself.   

[PS: Ms Bindel was reading a pre-publication version of the book; there are changes in the final version.]