Words, Words, Words! I’m so Sick of Words.

Once upon a time, in a far off land, the words Gentleman and Lady had meanings different from today. Gentlemen were males privy to the very person of the King; ladies were females privy to the very person of the Queen.

Over the years, the terms came to have more egalitarian, but still recognizable, meanings. Gentleman came to mean a male of independent means and reasonably high social standing, and frequently but not always of higher educational status than the population at large. Mere shopkeepers and even affluent merchants were infrequently denominated “gentleman.”

Again, Lady had a parallel meaning. Gradually, the terms devolved into designations of the gender-appropriate toilet facilities, generally printed on signs on the door. Now, perhaps finally, the words have all but disappeared. The terms “Men” and “Women” frequently adorn the sacred doors, and remaining uses for even these words are disappearing with the advent of unisex facilities.

Notwithstanding their dilution, Gentleman and Lady retain some vestiges of their former glory. To call someone a Gentleman or a Lady occasionally expresses an anticipation, or at least a fleeting wish, that the person so called will behave in a socially acceptable fashion.

The meanings of other words have also changed over time and in many cases new words have evolved with roots in common with the old. Most likely, “Car,” of which there are now many, evolved out of “Carriage,” of which there are now few. “Montana” is derived from the Spanish word “Montaña,” meaning “mountain.” Sometime, translations from one language to another produce unintentionally appropriate results. In at least some internet translations, which tend to be rather literal, of Spanish language newspapers, “Fidel Castro” becomes “Fidel I Castrate,” because Castro is also the present tense, first person singular form of the verb “to castrate,” castrar. But I digress.

Many of these changes are inoffensive and even necessary. I mean, you know. Others can be offensive. The devolution which I find most offensive involves the word “liberal.” Frankly, my mind simply can no longer bend itself around this word. Thomas Jefferson considered himself a liberal but would, most likely, find little in common with those who appropriate the term today. Lock Mr. Jefferson (of Virginia) in a room with any one of the many so called liberals of today, and they would possibly come to blows, the event being at least forestalled because Mr. Jefferson was a “gentleman” in the eighteenth century sense of the word. Query, how many people who nowadays call themselves liberals believe that their views on life, the universe and everything reflect those of Mr. Jefferson. After all, he was a “liberal,” and so are they.

Sir Winston Churchill occasionally referred to himself as a liberal Conservative or a conservative Liberal. I do not think that he had in mind the twenty-first century usage of the word “liberal,” because I would hate to think that he was capable of being inarticulate and using meaningless phrases.

When and how did the word “liberal” come to mean socialist, communist, anti-religious, pro-abortion, pacifist, advocate of drug legalization, proponent of “multi-culturalism,” speaker, defender and demander of political correctness, advocate of affirmative action, sufferer of massive feelings of unrequited guilt, caster of blame for all the ills of the world on the United States, and such stuff. These notions have little if any legitimate root in “liberalism” as the term has historically been understood. Bertrand Russell, a true liberal in the old fashioned sense of the word, wrote in one of his superb pieces of satire about the “superior virtue of the oppressed.” Perhaps years later, some “liberals” took his words seriously; after all, he was a liberal, the satire is congruent with many of their professed views (and liberals rarely attempt humor, except perhaps inadvertently).

“Liberal” has come, wrightly (oops, my bad) or wrongly, to be considered a term of praise, while there has been a rush (oops, again) to deem “conservative” a term of opprobrium. This assault on the English language is unfortunate. It is a wicked form of “new speak.”

I elect to use the word “liberal” to connote an open but not empty mind, a tendency to encourage the expression of opposing views, to listen attentively to them, and to desire to become familiar with them regardless of whether they are agreeable. It suggests a rational rather than a dogmatic approach to reality. A “liberal” in this sense can also be conservative; a conservative can, by the same token, be a “liberal;” there is no contradiction in terms.

Although this is my preference, I try very hard not to use the word at all, because the meaning(s) it conveys is (are) not what I intend. Instead, it seems better to use the words “leftist,” which perhaps has less historical baggage and better conveys what is most often meant by “liberal.”

First published at BlogCritics,  April 1, 2008.
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About danmillerinpanama

I was graduated from Yale University in 1963 with a B.A. in economics and from the University of Virginia School of law, where I was the notes editor of the Virginia Law Review in 1966. Following four years of active duty with the Army JAG Corps, with two tours in Korea, I entered private practice in Washington, D.C. specializing in communications law. I retired in 1996 to sail with my wife, Jeanie, on our sailboat Namaste to and in the Caribbean. In 2002, we settled in the Republic of Panama and live in a very rural area up in the mountains. I have contributed to Pajamas Media and Pajamas Tatler. In addition to my own blog, Dan Miller in Panama, I an an editor of Warsclerotic and contribute to China Daily Mail when I have something to write about North Korea.
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12 Responses to Words, Words, Words! I’m so Sick of Words.

  1. Pingback: Opinion Forum » Fact and Opinion in the News

  2. Pingback: Fact and Opinion in the News. | danmillerinpanama

  3. Pingback: Opinion Forum » What Are “Conservatives?”

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  5. Larry Brown says:

    Well, after posting that rather long comment, the entire thing was chopped up into fragments and the paragraphs were displaced. Some of it was left out altogether. Oh well.

  6. Larry Brown says:

    Mr. Miller of Panama. I read your article and take exception to a few things. I thought that I’d point out my area of disagreement.

    >”Thomas Jefferson considered himself a liberal but would, most likely, find little in common with those who appropriate the term today.””When and how did the word “liberal” come to mean socialist, communist, anti-religious, pro-abortion, pacifist, advocate of drug legalization, proponent of “multi-culturalism,” speaker, defender and demander of political correctness, advocate of affirmative action, sufferer of massive feelings of unrequited guilt, caster of blame for all the ills of the world on the United States, and such stuff.”“I elect to use the word “liberal” to connote an open but not empty mind, a tendency to encourage the expression of opposing views, to listen attentively to them, and to desire to become familiar with them regardless of whether they are agreeable. It suggests a rational rather than a dogmatic approach to reality.”” A “liberal” in this sense can also be conservative; a conservative can, by the same token, be a “liberal;” there is no contradiction in terms.””Instead, it seems better to use the words “leftist,” which perhaps has less historical baggage and better conveys what is most often meant by “liberal.”<

    This is simply another attempt at demogoguery. "leftist". So you look for a way to describe people with a different world view in a negative way. You denegrate what you don't understand, by attempting to define others, not according to what they claim to be, but rather by what you claim that they are. I don't define conservatives. They define themselves. I simply critique their definition. When a conservative makes a declarative statement that he believes should be accepted as the truth, and I question his reasoning for coming to that conclusion, I'm immediately branded a leftist for questioning him. I suppose that seeking the truth is a liberal or "leftist" tendency. I stand accused, and plead guilty as charged.

    The main point about liberalism is that it wants to go elsewhere, not to stand still. Though today the contrary impression may sometimes be caused by the fact that there was a time when liberalism was more widely accepted and some of its objectives closer to being achieved, it has never been a backward-looking doctrine. There has never been a time when liberal ideals were fully realized and when liberalism did not look forward to further improvement of institutions. Conservatism has always been about preserving and protecting existing institutions. So conservatives point to "classical liberalism" as if it were meant to stay in one place. That's not what liberals do. It's what conservatives do so liberalism gets defined by conservatives according to conservatives ideas about how a philosophy that they don't really understand should function. It should function the way that conservatism does, even though its something else. It should function as an ideololgy, which is the wrong way of looking at it. There is no canon to liberalism. No doctrine to follow. No dogma.

    I assume the conservative is speaking of values, and principles that are the canons of conservatism as laid out by Russell Kirk in the 1950’s. But what are “canons”? ( back to the definition of words ). Beside the ecclesiastical definition, a canon is the body of rules, principles, or standards accepted as axiomatic and universally binding in a field of study such as religion or even politics. They are a theory of rationality. A “true blue” conservative would most certainly be a fundamentalist in his approach to his ideology. It's the hallmark of every presidential candidate right now from Rick Santorum, to Michelle Bachman, to Newt Gingrich. They are each trying to out-conservative the next guy with their conservative credentials. It's the demand made by the Tea Party types and ultra conservatives that their candidate reflect that dogmatism.

    But the modern conservative actually lacks principles, I do not mean to suggest that he lacks moral conviction. The typical conservative is indeed usually a man of very strong moral convictions. What I mean is that he has no political principles which enable him to work with people whose moral values differ from his own for a political order in which both can obey their convictions. It is the recognition of such principles that permits the coexistence of different sets of values that makes it possible to build a peaceful society with a minimum of force. The acceptance of such principles means that we agree to tolerate much that we dislike.

    To live and work successfully with others requires more than faithfulness to one’s concrete aims. It requires an intellectual commitment to a type of order in which, even on issues which to one are fundamental, others are allowed to pursue different ends.It is for this reason that to the liberal neither moral nor religious ideals are proper objects of coercion. I sometimes feel that the most conspicuous attribute of liberalism that distinguishes it from conservatism is the view that moral beliefs concerning matters of conduct which do not directly interfere with the protected sphere of other persons do not justify coercion.

    So, today the solutions provided by the Republican Party are name-calling, demogoguery and attempts to re-define Democrats ( liberals ) on Republican (conservative) terms as if the Democrats and liberals will find that anything more than a laughably desperate attempt at trying to appear relevant to the American public, which appears to be fed up with their obstructionism.

    Is there a conservative that is willing to entertain any position and holds all his positions,
    including his most fundamental standards, goals, and decisions, and his basic philosophical
    position itself, open to criticism; one who never cuts off an argument by resorting to faith, or
    irrational commitment to justify some belief that has been under severe critical fire; one who is
    committed, attached, addicted, to no position? I don't think so. He's too entrenched in his own dogma. His own belief system. His own theory of rationality.

    So no…I doubt it. That isn’t what conservatism is about. It never questions itself. And because of that, it is locked in a box ( its theory of rationality) of its own making. How does it grow its
    sphere of influence? It doesn’t. That isn’t what it’s about either. It’s about maintaining
    institutions and beliefs that provide it with solid ground. It never rocks the boat. And as a result,
    it never explores mans potential for greatness. It can only hope that people come to it as a last
    resort. It’s safe. It’s uncompromising. It’s the corral that the sheep live within. It’s a voice of
    authority. It’s basically timid. It wants to go back to a romanticized version of America in hopes of re-creating the past.

    Liberalism has never stood still Mr. Miller in Panama. What was the resisted novelty of yesterday is today one of the accepted principles of conservatism. It will resist the next innovation, which will tomorrow be forced upon its timidity and will be succeeded by some third revolution; to be denounced and then adopted in its turn. American conservatism is merely the shadow that follows Liberalism.

    I wish you a very happy holiday.

    • Mr. Brown, I managed to read through you somewhat garbled (as you acknowledge) comment and here, very briefly, is my response.

      First, there are many conservatives who are not “faith based.” An Agnostic, I nevertheless consider myself a conservative. You might be surprised to learn how many there are in a similar situation.

      Second, you seem to accept my definition of a “liberal” in the old fashioned sense as one with

      an open but not empty mind, a tendency to encourage the expression of opposing views, to listen attentively to them, and to desire to become familiar with them regardless of whether they are agreeable. It suggests a rational rather than a dogmatic approach to reality. A “liberal” in this sense can also be conservative; a conservative can, by the same token, be a “liberal;” there is no contradiction in terms.

      In my limited experience, many modern day “liberals,” to whom I refer as “Libruls,” do not fit well within this definition. Neither, for that matter, do many “conservatives.”

      You were kind enough to close with a “happy holidays” wish. Although I don’t celebrate Christmas in any religious sense, I do value the Jewish-Christian foundations of the United States and take no offense whatever at being wished a “Merry Christmas.”

  7. Shelly Craig says:

    Hi Dan,
    Richard and I want to wish Jeanne a Happy Birthday! The email address I have bounced back.
    Trust that you two are well and life is good.
    Take care,
    Shelly

  8. Pingback: Opinion Forum » Words, Words, Words! I’m So Sick of Words

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