Monday, May 18, 2009

"Liberal" and Other Changing Words

Some words carry such a heavy cargo of meanings that controversies can boil up around them almost spontaneously. “Liberal” is one such word, here taken in its adjectival sense. It carries positive and negative connotations. Liberal describes a kind of education. It can mean generosity or amplitude (“a liberal helping”), also lose or free (“liberal translation”). One of its meanings is broadminded, thus “not bound by authoritarianism, orthodoxy, or traditional forms.” An obsolete meaning of it (obsolete according to Merriam-Webster, but I’m not so sure myself), is licentious, thus lacking moral restraint. The word’s root is from the Latin (liber, free), thus free concerning often restrictive customs and free with means often tightly held. In politics it once meant favoring free trade—what today is usually labeled conservative, but the older meaning still survives in Europe.

Curiously a liberal education, strictly speaking, is the medieval curriculum called the trivium and the quadrivium. Brigitte once gave me a wonderful book on this for Christmas, The Trivium, by Sister Miriam Joseph (Paul Dry Books, 2002), something of a classic on the subject. Let’s look at how “liberal” that curriculum sounds: the trivium itself is logic, grammar, and rhetoric; the quadrivium, according to Sister Miriam’s description is “the four arts of quantity pertaining to matter,” thus arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy. Liberal once, obsolete now. “Music?!” a modern would say. Words gain meanings and loose them. Courtesy once had a vastly greater meaning than it has at present; I have in mind Castiglione’s The Courtier; rhetoric once had status enough to label a whole curriculum; now people have trouble spelling the word.

“Stereotyping” is another word that has undergone extensive redefinition over time; it once meant a metal plate made from a pattern—to be used for printing. It used to mean making many true copies of a single mold; it has come to mean imposing a single meaning on highly variable and changing situations. Functionally, I think, it is a word meaning prejudice, but precisely because prejudice has become extremely pejorative in the wake of the civil rights movement, another word needed stamping out as it were. Prejudice itself is a word that has undergone great transformations. Edmund Burke (1729-1797) knew it, and used it, to mean pre-judgment, consensus, custom, tradition—thus in a positive sense*. Each of those words, in turn, resemble stock on Wall Street if we take a long enough view. Up they go and down, and around and round they go…

All this in shy reaction to a small controversy on another site which intrigued me enough to engage in this totally liberal, meaning free, examination of words—which never fail to fascinate me, especially not when some minor explosion causes their energetic ricochet to draw my attention from a safe distance.
*Extensively discussed in Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind on p. 38 and elsewhere.


  1. I quite agree. We often tend to think that the meanings of words are static, but meaning is more like water, and language is like trying to use the stream from one water hose to move the stream from another water hose in the direction you want it to go. It's one of the things I find interesting in arguments; although, of course, you get too close at the wrong time you might end up soaking wet!

  2. Well put, Brandon. But a water-fight is sometimes fun.

  3. I learned this lesson about words and their changing meanings when I read a wonderful oral history collection, "Blood of Spain," edited by Ronal Fraser, about the Spanish Civil War back in college. The lesson keeps me vigilant about words and how they're used.

  4. Once genuinely learned, this discovery is invaluable. It becomes a compass by which we can safely steer. -- And furthermore, it's fun!