What’s in a word: “Liberal”

Adam Smith

As you may have noticed by now, I am a lover of words–to the point of pedantry–and it gives me indigestion to hear people abuse my little darlings. Americans are especially prone. For example, they are scandalously liberal with the word … liberal.

Traveling around America, we at The Economist get at least two questions in any gathering. 1) Why don’t we have bylines? 2) Are we liberal or conservative?

Folks, the way you (the Americans) ask that second question, it does not make any sense! You, unique among nations, did something quite uncivilized to this word, liberal. You unilaterally and wantonly changed its meaning, without telling the other 6.3 billion of us. You cannot do that! As The Economist has demanded before, it’s our word and “we want it back.”

Here is what liberal means: It comes from the Latin liber, free, and refers both to a philosophy and worldview that treasures individual freedom (as in Liberalism) and to the habits and learning befitting a free individual (as in Liberal Arts). That’s all.

The origins of liberalism go back to classical Greece (the “left leg” in this analogy of the Western Tradition as a “body”). It thrived during the Enlightenment, especially its Scottish flavor; found a permanent fan group when The Economist was founded; came under undignified attack in the past century; was defended valorously by people like my great-uncle Ludwig Erhard; became a whipping post in France (especially in the phrase “neoliberal”) for people who like to roll tractors through McDonald’s outlets; and now lives this bizarre American double life among barely literate TV-show hosts.

Liberal means: Tolerant, even enthusiastic, about the eccentricities of individuals and the diversity of lifestyles, as long as nobody is harmed. Hence, a modern Liberal is likely to support the right of gays to marry, as The Economist has done far longer than any other major publication that I’m aware of.

It also means being tolerant, even enthusiastic, about the willingness of individuals to take risks for gain, without any sour-grapes Collectivist outbreak of envy after the fact.

It means skepticism about huge efforts to change human nature; about naive faith in governments or companies always being “good”; about any attempt to subordinate the individual to society.

But Liberalism does not mean (as anti-Thatcherites in Britain once tried to imply) denial that there is such a thing as society.

And it does not mean (duh, really!) salivating over “big government”. Whatever that is called, it is not Liberalism.

Finally, is it the same as what Americans call Libertarianism? In theory, it comes close. In practice, not. American Libertarianism tends to attract a lot of loonies.

Liberals are not loonies. They don’t foam at the mouth. If you need an image, it is of a dour Scot like Adam Smith, pictured above. Slightly dull, but excited about the fun that others get up to. Sort of like The Economist.

11 thoughts on “What’s in a word: “Liberal”

  1. George Orwell, were he still with us, wouldn’t have been surprised that “liberal” today means the opposite (well, almost) of what it originally was.

    Whilst I’m here, I wish to complain about the theft of another word, “gay”, which, once-upon-a-time, described people who liked having a good time, or activities which were fun-loving or light-hearted.

    Fortunately, English is so rich in synonyms, that my world hasn’t quite fallen apart because I can no longer use “gay” with the insouciance I once did.

    But still.

  2. There’s another word, “troops”, which I see misused constantly, not only by the president of the United States (the current one), but by professional journalists (including those of the Economist?).

    When I grew up, “troop” was only a verb. When a noun, it was “troops”, and only in the general sense.

    Thus, “troops marched into the city”. But one didn’t say “two troops were out on a walk”. One said, “two soldiers were out on a walk”. One didn’t say, “a troop was yesterday killed by a sniper”. One said “a soldier was yesterday killed by a sniper”.

    One could say, “seven thousand troops”. But one couldn’t say “two troops”. It had to be “two soldiers”. However, I never knew the cut-off number which would determine whether the military personnel in question would be “soldiers” or “troops”.

    Does the Economist know what this cut-off number is?

    I could also go on about the “exportation” of goods, which, when I grew up, was the “export” of goods – “exportation” not yet existing. But I’m tired and I wish to sleep……….

  3. Troops: A great one! It was always instinctively clear to me (as a non-native English speaker) that the word comes from the German Truppe or the French troupe, which are plural nouns–ie, groupsof actors or, in the English case, soldiers. So “the troups” were “the soldiers”. Thence the bastardisation to an incorrect singular, a troop.
    What is your theory about sanction? It’s one of those English words that appear to be be gratuitously created to throw foreigners off. One meaning of it is the exact opposite of the other.

  4. Thanks to Google (isn’t Google wonderful?) I tracked down a link http://www-personal.umich.edu/~cellis/antagonym.html to some information about English words containing opposite meanings (called antagonyms). I wasn’t aware there were so many.

    Regarding German, since I’m a very inexpert reader of it, my antennae always go into alert mode when I encounter “einstellen”, among whose meanings are to employ (in the sense of “to use”) or to stop or cease.

    Thus I have to read a sentence containing “einstellen” three or four times to ensure I don’t get hopelessly confused (this is quite apart the confusion arising out of “einstellen”s damnable separable prefix).

  5. You have me smirking now. Einstellen is indeed a mischivious one. So are, come to think of it, all the other stellens. Vorstellen: To introduce or to imagine. Unterstellen: To insinuate or to seek shelter from the rain. The gebens are little better. It deteriorates from there…

  6. “American Libertarianism tends to attract a lot of loonies.”

    Thanks for smearing Libertarianism….. not.

  7. A troop has been a proper noun for a long, long time, and is a unit of cavalry as part of a squadron.

    A trooper is a cavalryman, and talk of “the troopers” has probably been bastardized with “the soldiers” into “the troops” (a usage of which I, as a non native english speaker, has no strong opinion of; I’m kinda used to it by now)

    But it is indeed both proper and fitting to speak of “the troops” as a number of cavalry units.

    • Got it. So “the troops” would be correct for several cavalry units, but incorrect for several cavalrymen (in one unit). Right?

      You made me google the etymology: via Norman French to the old Germanic ‘thorpe’ (as in modern German “Dorf”, Danish ‘dorp’), apparently. (Looking at your name, you might recognize that root?) In any case, very interesting.

      Thanks, Lasse!

  8. U will soon have it back sir as we all should,this is another example of the progressive agenda and the play on words,attempt to re write history,.In the early 1900’s ,not exactly who first came up with the idea of Big Gov’t knows best,but around this time the progressive movement really begin take off,a couple decades behind our cousins across the pond,Fabian Society,like the progressives here want to reshape the world in their image&through the enlightened elite will have all the answers to solve the worlds problem,here in America only one thing stood in the way,Liberalism, in the sense of our founders,born free,endowed nu their Creator, the only environment where free market.
    survive,thus true capitalism was born,.So an attack on words was initiated (tell a lie long enough it will be believed) history being rewrote also,to push their big govervment agenda, which throughout history always ends in tyranny, it went from communism to progressive, to liberal to Democrat,back to progressive, all being hi jacked without my or your consent.Saying all that, since the true Democratic party being swallowed entirely &Republicans being eat away at a rapid pace,I think the words Democrat&liberal will be returned with true definition intact,for they have used it& have moved on,agree or disagree,that’s my take on this word play.

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