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Lib and Let Die

At Barack Obama’s inauguration, John Roberts’s adverb trouble, subconsciously driven by a “blackboard grammar” quest to deflect faithfully from “splitting” the verb execute from the auxiliary will, was a rather gorgeous example of how educated people can be tripped up by unworkable hoaxes about how language works. (“To boldly go where no man has gone before” is “bad” grammar?). Now, the Hoover Institution’s Timothy Garton Ash falls into a similar kind of misimpression in his take on what we should do about the tarnishing of the word liberal.

Ash has the notion that instead of accepting the use of liberal as referring to an espousal of big government and, probably, envelope-pushing social values, we should return to its classical definition. That is, liberal should mean “liberty under law, limited and accountable government, markets, tolerance, some version of individualism and universalism, and some notion of human equality, reason, and progress.”

But isn’t this more a political science seminar than a realistic daily usage of a word by people of all walks? Consider how messily it corresponds to an immediately processible political position in our times. Who on the left or right would disavow “liberty under law” in itself? “Markets” sounds like today’s “conservative.” And how is speaking up for “some version of individualism and universalism” a discrete political position contrasting with another one?

It is inherent for words’ meanings to change over time. Thinkers of yore may well have been at ease using liberal in the sense Ash would prefer, but the political alignments and questions that sparked this classical usage in the 17th century were vastly different from ours. Often, words come to signify a single facet of what they originally meant. Meat first referred to food in general, and then narrowed to refer to flesh (its use in mincemeat is a relic). Upon his first sight of St. Paul’s Cathedral, James II registered his approval by designating it amusing, awful, and artificial: All of these words were compliments in his day. Today, amuse refers not to mere delight, but to a particular trivial sort; awful now refers to awesomeness of a negative variety; artificial refers not to craft (artifice) alone, but to a usually pejorative judgment upon craftedness.

This is what words do, and especially when referring to a phenomenon as emotional and fluid as politics. For example, Louis Farrakhan believes in black people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps with no appeals to white charity, and propounds traditional codes of behavior and dress among his flock. Yet he does not make the usual lists of black conservatives. On the other hand, one can support Barack Obama, be pro-choice, regularly write about government programs helping the poor, and never have written a word about small government--I refer to myself--and yet be processed as a “black conservative.”

The reason is that in reference to black thinkers, conservative has narrowed to indicate one facet of conservatism: an emphasis on self-reliance. In fact, the narrowing is even more specific, referring to a lack of commitment to stressing white racism as an obstacle to black success--even if one still believes that government anti-poverty efforts are important. The focus on racism is, obviously, due to America’s sociohistorical terrain--which naturally affects the development of words’ meanings.

Black conservative, then, means not a black person with the politics of Edmund Burke or William F. Buckley Jr., but something more specific: a black person who does not see white racism as a key problem for black people. Such a person may well have the politics of William F. Buckley Jr.,--but if they do not, the term black conservative is still applied.

Societal happenstance has changed the meaning of conservative here. Crucially, there is no reason to call for this to change: Semantic narrowing, as linguists term it, is normal and inevitable. Words are not mere static dictionary entries; they are used within living minds amidst the turbulent and subjective realities of social history.

We can surely “discuss” changes like these--but our sense of whether they are “right” or not clearly won’t affect ongoing usage among people in the real world. The case is similar, I submit, with liberal. The horse is out of the barn. Liberal in the modern sense had a run, but today, beyond academia, a critical mass will associate it with certain controversial outcomes of New Left politics. That controversy will be utilized as a rhetorical battering ram; the word’s adherents will be ever on the defensive.

That’s why Hillary Clinton was right when asked whether she was a liberal during a primary debate and preferred progressive to refer to the relevant zone of positions. Progressive does not carry the associations that Richard Nixon, Roger Ailes, and others have given liberal, and thus steps around sticky, aggrieved debates over what liberal “is supposed to mean.”

And that’s also why calls to “reclaim” the word (cf. Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey’s impassioned The Return of the L-Word of 2005) are understandable but futile, implying that we can exempt certain words from inevitable tendencies of language change amidst the roiling currents of human society.

To the extent that those who term themselves liberal consider themselves more open to change than the conservative, it would be within the spirit of their philosophy to open up to the true nature of human language and let liberal drift away as “the L-word.” “Reclaiming” has a good feisty ring to it, but don’t we have more important things to do--and even reclaim--than engage in a conceit so futile as to stop a word’s meaning from changing? Move On, indeed.

John McWhorter is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.