07/03/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Take My Words For It: Homogamy and Heterogamy

Not really my words, just my proposal for how to use words.

I'm unhappy with the state of language around marriage, cohabitation, partnerships, couples, mates -- what demographers sometimes refer to as "unions." This is my proposal to improve the language.

Take marriage. "Marriage" almost always refers to the regular, normal, legal marriage. And when some Other kind of marriage comes along, it gets a different name, especially "same-sex marriage." Then, if the two are compared, we might get references to "opposite-sex marriage."

This is like so many other examples of the dominant -- normative, hegemonic -- group being anointed to the linguistic throne of invisible deference. As when the icon for person is the same as the one for man, while the one for woman is different. Race is another big one.

homogamy: union between people of the same sex; heterogamy: union between people of different sexes


Social science has English terms to categorize systems of families and relationships -- including monogamy, polygamy, polygyny, hypergamy, matrilineal, patrilineal, and so on. There is good scientific reason to put such systems or relationships in categories, with labels -- like species or elements.

What we don't have is a sensible, symmetrical, inclusive set of terms for marriage that incorporates the unions of men with men, women with men, and women with women.

I prefer homogamy and heterogamy. The words are from the Greek for same and different (homo/hetero) and marriage (gamos), although gamos has been used for lots of mating and pairing terms that aren't legal marriage.

I don't like "same-sex" and "opposite-sex" because the sexes aren't opposites. They're different -- partly because we make them that way -- and "opposite" exaggerates those differences. (Plus, why "sex" instead of "gender"?) Also, unlike "gay marriage," for example, homogamy and heterogamy don't presume to differentiate people based on their sexual orientation -- which is not a prerequisite for any kind of marriage.

Researchers already use "homogamy" a lot in family studies, but always to refer to similarity between partners on everything else except sex/gender. As in "educational homogamy" for couples with similar education. But we can get around that (using words like endogamy and homophily). Now that real homogamous marriage is catching on, we can set those uses aside.

I know these aren't the easiest terms to say and write. But it's an improvement, and it's worth a try. Consider examples such as:

  • "Advocates for the legal recognition of homogamous marriage celebrated today..."
  • "The dominant system of heterogamous marriage prevailed in Europe for centuries..."
  • "The rise in homogamy among young couples poses a challenge for the prom police in many schools..."
I have laid this proposal out in more detail in an article to be published in the journal Family Theory and Review. There is a preprint of that forthcoming article available here.

Cross posted from the Family Inequality blog.