The civil union has recently gotten a lot of air time, with pundits on all sides asking whether it’s an adequate substitute for marriage equality. As I pointed out in a letter to the New York Times, the civil union (or domestic partnership, or “reciprocal beneficiary”, or whatever else) is a poor stand-in. It doesn’t confer any federal benefits, and wouldn’t even if the Defense of Marriage Act were repealed.
Yet the word “marriage” really does seem to be the sticking point for a lot of otherwise-reasonable people. In poll after poll, a majority favor granting equal benefits to same-sex partners, but an equally solid (though weakening) majority oppose same-sex marriage. So we have the answer to Juliet’s rhetorical question: “What’s in a name?” Plenty. But why “civil unions”? If the word “marriage” is the problem, is “civil unions” the best solution? Why not something that looks more familiar?
I propose the word “mariage” — with one “r”! This neologism should make everyone happy. The familiar “two r” “marriage” is reserved for heterosexuals, while same-sex couples can hardly complain about the sacrifice of one measly letter.
Yes, there would be problems to solve, but they’re not insurmountable. The most obvious difficulty would be in pronunciation. While the words are distinguishable as written, how would couples signal which legal and social institution they were referring to when saying one of the two “M” words? We wouldn’t want to constantly say “one ‘r’ marriage” or “two ‘r’ marriage.” Here’s the solution: Since gays and lesbians are being asked to give up a letter, it doesn’t seem like too much to ask that the pronunciation of traditional “marriage” be changed to emphasize the two “r”s. Exaggeration of the “r” sound might be needed to make the distinction clear, but the high stakes in maintaining the separation will provide all the incentive that’s needed to make this work.
Here’s an example: “Oh, I’m so happy for Bob and Betty. Theirs is a marrrriage made in heaven.”
Of course, the trilled “r” sound that native Spanish speakers handle with such dismaying ease could also work here, because that mellifluous sound signifies a double “r.” Perhaps a side benefit of this new “one r/two r” world would be a rush to enroll small children in Spanish immersion classes, thereby arming them with the phoneme needed to keep the wall between the two institutions sturdy. Given the rising Latino population in the United States, this increased interest in the Spanish language would serve two vital goals at once: increased Spanish literacy and the protection of the institution of “marriage.”
My only fear is that, over time, this nice distinction would disappear. Then people wouldn’t know who was “married” and who was “maried.” This must never be allowed to happen. For the last time, “marriage” means the union of one man and one woman. “Mariage” is something else entirely.