Lost Language, Lost Liberalism

A review of the changes 1880-1940 to the central semantics of liberal civilization.

Introduction to 4L

By Daniel B. Klein



The liberalism that emerged particularly during the 18th and 19th centuries has been the jewel of western civilization. The liberal discourse of the liberal era featured a number of central words. Many of the central words became confused especially in the period 1880 to 1940. The central words are shown in the left side panel.

The original pledge of allegiance, 1941, with “the Bellamy salute,” after Francis Bellamy, a nationalist/socialist author who wrote the original pledge in 1892. Francis had like-minded cousins in the brothers Edward and Charles Bellamy. Pre-1900 writings of all three Bellamys are quoted at this website for their confusion of the liberal lexicon.

The original pledge of allegiance, 1941, with “the Bellamy salute,” after Francis Bellamy, a nationalist/socialist author who wrote the original pledge in 1892. Francis had like-minded cousins in the brothers Edward and Charles Bellamy. Pre-1900 writings of all three Bellamys are quoted at this website for their confusion of the liberal lexicon.

Most of the central terms were infused with certain core meanings. In 1870 in the West, though perhaps not dominating the culture, the liberal meanings were at least rather focal. But today for many of the words the core meaning is lost. Today the important words mean little to people, or mean something quite different from the original liberal meaning. 

The substance of a cultural system lies in its semantics. The semantics reside in central words. When central words lose their meaning, the civilization loses its character. Their semantics lost, people find themselves lost.

In most public discourse today, the central words are in confusion. Liberalism, the jewel of humankind, exists only vaguely, only half perceived, with little voice and standing. 

This website highlights the years 1880 to 1940, a period when liberal understanding was subverted and supplanted. Sure, all along the words had been matters of contention, but particularly during the 1880–1940 period the meanings were changed or just lost in a fog.

Vincent Ostrom (1997, 132) wrote, “a language can exist only so long as it continues to be acquired, used, and monitored as an instrument of communication and of actions constitutive of ways of life.” The intellectual life of classical liberalism receded sharply during the period 1880 to 1940.

There had previously been a liberal ascendance. It occurred over many generations and, in my view, was best represented by Adam Smith. Societies that enjoyed liberal culture and liberal principles suddenly prospered as never before—the famous hockey stick, which resulted, as Deirdre McCloskey (2010) says, from the moral authorization of honest income and liberal policy.

But the changes were challenging. Liberalism challenged established powers, the old regime, the established church, and long standing customs. The liberty principle emerged as humanitarian boon but also as a frightful engine of rapid change and turmoil. The rising collectivist reaction may have been, in part, something to fill spiritual voids—I don’t think liberalism itself gave much spiritual comfort. I regard liberalism’s commentary on life as rather stoical, informing us where not to look for meaning and fulfillment, and to tame and tamp down our primeval instincts for meaning and belonging. Like Hayek I interpret the state-collectivist reaction—painted in democracy, nationalism, and, by some, for a while, unabashed socialism, fascism, and communism—as, at least in part, a reconditioning of band-man instincts and mentalities, now with a new lease on life. The semantic changes reflected collectivist outlooks; cultural players gave a green light to many baneful forces, including the band-man penchants now reconditioned. 

This website compiles many quotations demonstrating the semantic confusions produced between 1880 and 1940 by opponents of classical liberalism. They knew their meanings differed from erstwhile liberal meanings, and they often declared a “new liberalism,” a “new freedom,” and so on.

The semantic changes did not just sneak up one night and effect a quiet changeover. This website shows that the tumult was apparent; people fought openly over semantics. The semantic struggle was fairly protracted. Even though the rising generations of, say, 1880–1920, seemed to have been nearly bereft of original liberalism, members of the liberal old guard rejoined with objections. This website provides “Rejoinder” quotations, deploring the semantic subversion, confusion, and statism. (By the way, many of the Rejoinder quotations are not agreeable to me; please do not suppose that I find all of the Rejoinder quotations just and agreeable.)

But the 1880–1940 story is little understood today. To understand the present confusion of tongues, people need to see the semantics of original liberalism, see what happened, and then look back and ask themselves: Did the whole public culture, during the reactionary period, take a wrong turn?

Karl Polanyi famously narrated two great transformations in his book The Great Transformation (1944). He saw that liberalism was a revolutionary cultural development. The book also tells of the liberal era provoking a great cultural reaction.

But Polanyi viewed liberalism as pernicious, a development needing encompassing governmental restraints and counteraction. He applauded the reaction that culturally engulfed and buried classical liberalism. He wrote: “The passing of the market economy can become the beginning of an era of unprecedented freedom” (256). The expression "the great transformation," used as the title of the book, appears only twice in the book (3, 227), and in both cases it refers to the social-democratic reaction to liberalism. Today we live with Polanyi’s great transformation; we have been living with it, or at least its onset, for well over a century.

Liberalism had provided a web of understanding. The cultural reaction did not so much replace the liberal web with an equally clear web, as much as it simply degraded the liberal web such that liberalism lost its cultural constitution. What we’ve gotten is governmentalization of social affairs, with accompanying darkness and confusion.

Today, some people realize that during the 20th century there was a big shift toward statism in the political culture. Classical liberalism was eviscerated. Classical liberal understandings collapsed during the early generations of the 20th century, reaching a nadir in the 1930s and 1940s. But people often date the onset of the change to the 1930s. This website shows that the fundamental change—the subversion of liberal semantics—had been in full swing for generations; it was well afoot by 1890. By the 1930s there was practically no one left to defend or impart liberal enlightenment. 

The specters of national socialism, communism, and fascism then upset the trend of reaction against classical liberalism. The Western Allies mobilized and waged the Second World War as a war of free nations against unfree nations, with an asterisk for the USSR, which soon, in the Cold War, fit a Western-freedom narrative. During the post-WWII period there occurred some liberal re-awakenings. Everywhere, the bad consequences of statism started to show and the social democrats had to face down one embarrassment after another. Statist aesthetics and sentiments grew more diffident. 

But today still the culture has not made a return to liberal understandings. The postwar generations have largely continued in the cultural ruts of the reactionary period 1880-1940. 

Today the civilization muddles along in a fog. As though by system, the mainstreams of academia, popular media, and political culture obscure and exclude classical liberalism. Liberty remains a matter of great taboo.

An ngram of liberty, since 1750.

Liberty, freedom, justice, property, liberal and so onkey words of western civilizationhave been lost in confusion. In the United States, the mainstream political culturerepresented by, among other things, K-through-12 schools, the colleges and universities, other governmental institutions, and most of the major mediafinds no handle on large ideas and larger argumentation. Metaphorically speaking, they are accomplices in a vast betrayal that dates back well over 100 years. What has been betrayed is, as Smith put it, “the liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice.” 

Today in the US most of the political culture is tepid, bound by status-quo policies, led by establishment players, and framed by Democrat vs. Republican, in the code of “liberal versus conservative”a framework that epitomizes the breakdown of liberal understanding.

Google’s Ngram Viewer tracks usage of words and phrases quantitatively.  It doesn't tell you how people used the word or phrase, but nonetheless it can indicate semantic change.  Consider the following figure: 

Prior to 1880, rarely did someone write “the United States is” or “the United States has”:

More ngrams are shown on the Ngrams page here.

Another special page, called Generations, provides textual evidence that the 1880–1940 shift came by new generations, which talked one way, displacing older generations, which talked another way.

On another page, Dan’s Reflections, I reflect further on the semantic changes and the predicament.

The compendia of quotations are accompanied by bylines for some authors. In writing the bylines we have cribbed fairly directly from Wikipedia and other such sources.


McCloskey, Deirdre N. 2010. Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ostrom, Vincent. 1997. The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerability of Democracies: A Response to Tocqueville's Challenge. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

Polanyi, Karl. 1957 [1944]. The Great Transformation. Beacon Press: Boston.

4L is authored by Daniel B. Klein, Professor of Economics, JIN Chair at the Mercatus Center, George Mason University, Associate Fellow of the Ratio Institute; email: dklein@gmu.edu

Quotations compiled by Ryan Daza & Daniel B. Klein