The word “liberal”

So I’ve been thinking about politics lately, because I need to make up my mind. I enjoy taking a strictly observer’s position until near the end, because I so enjoy the high-stakes game of Twister that candidates play on the open stage of the press.

I’ve been thinking about the word “liberal” and how the definition of the word seems to have changed over the years, hijacked, if you will, by conservatives and turned into an ugly, pejorative term.

I love words, and I love their early American meanings, especially when it comes to reading early American documents. You just can’t understand them, IMO, because rather than deal with the intent of the documents, we just change the meaning of the words.

My source for early American words is Noah Webster’s 1838 dictionary. The American Dictionary of the English Language is a fascinating read — a necessary book in anybody’s library. So here’s what old Noah wrote of the word “liberal:”


LIB’ERAL, a. [L. liberalis, from liber, free. See Libe.]

1. Of a free heart; free to give or bestow; not close or contracted; munificent; bountiful; generous; giving largely; as a liberal donor; the liberal founders of a college or hospital. It expresses less than profuse or extravagant.

2. Generous; ample; large; as a liberal donation; a liberal allowance.

3. Not selfish, narrow on contracted; catholic; enlarged; embracing other interests than one’s own; as liberal sentiments or views; a liberal mind; liberal policy.

4. General; extensive; embracing literature and the sciences generally; as a liberal education. This phrase is often but not necessarily synonymous with collegiate; as a collegiate education.

5. Free; open; candid; as a liberal communication of thoughts.

6. Large; profuse; as a liberal discharge of matter by secretions or excretions.

7. Free; not literal or strict; as a liberal construction of law.

8. Not mean; not low in birth or mind.

9. Licentious; free to excess.

Liberal arts, as distinguished from mechanical arts, are such as depend more on the exertion of the mind than on the labor of the hands, and regard amusement, curiosity or intellectual improvement, rather than the necessity of subsistence, or manual skill. Such are grammar, rhetoric, painting, sculpture, architecture, music. &c.

Liberal has of before the thing bestowed, and to before the person or object on which any thing is bestowed; as, to be liberal of praise or censure; liberal to the poor.

Definition #9 is the one conservatives use to paint anybody who calls themselves “liberal” as a bad person, somebody out to take what others have worked so hard to accumulate.

I don’t know about you, but I think it’s always been a generally favorable word.


  1. Amazing, the old ‘switch-er-oo’ that has been done with that word!

  2. it hasent changed. Liberals spend tax money freely. liberals genoursly give taxpayers hard earned money to those that dont earn. liberals are large, ted kennedey’s beer gut hillary clintons calves… ted kennedey consumes liberal amounts of alchohol prior to driving women to there death off a bridge… see it all fits in 2008

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