Lost Language, Lost Liberalism

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

Governmentalization Rising:
As Seen in Ngrams

During the 1880-1940 period, political discourse moved dramatically toward ideas that bring on the governmentalization of social affairs. This page uses ngrams to show the rising use of terms that reflect and are suited to governmentalization.

An ngram figure does not tell you how people used the ngram you searched on – that is, the n-word-long string of words you searched on. The figure simply plots the percentage of ngrams that are the one that you searched on. 

But the plot often suggests a story:

the Great War, since 1750

The Y axis is the percentage of 3-grams that are “the Great War”. We see that when World War II came people stopped calling World War I “the Great War.”

You can learn about the Google Ngram Viewer here. The ngram population searched on is from millions of books. By adding *10 to the ngram you multiply the frequency by ten, easing visual comparison with another ngram of higher frequency. By adding  _NOUN you confine the results to the term as a noun, for example “values” used as a noun. Results are case sensitive (so “god” and “God” generate quite different results).

The ngram figures shown here are generated using the “English” book corpus (the default setting); I note when I switched to the American English corpus. I use 3 year smoothing (the default setting).


Social gospel

In the United States and Canada, there was a statist movement within Protestant circles that came to be called the social gospel movement. Wikipedia on social gospel is here. But the movement was well under way before that term gained frequency in books. 

I use the term statist to mean: too inclined toward ideas that tend toward the governmenalization of social affairs.

social gospel, since 1850 [American English corpus]

Many leading professors of a statist bent in the United States were at least loosely associated with the social gospel movement.


Speaking of professors

college professors, university professors, college faculty, university faculty, since 1800

The rise of the professoriate, and the professional associations still central to academic pyramids, must be incorporated into any understanding of the great transformation after 1880. 

The professors brought in their progressive research programs – often in both senses of the term “progressive.”

psychology, economics, sociology, anthropology, political science * 5, criminology * 10, since 1800


Liberalism, old and new

After the Liberal Party in Britain changed and many statists started calling themselves liberals, people came to notice and to speak of the new and the old liberalism.

new liberalism, old liberalism * 5, since 1800

Realize that it would take a few years for the innovations in the usage of “liberalism” to generate “new liberalism” and “old liberalism” in published books. A statist tide started to come in around 1880, soon engulfing the younger generations, and having, by 1920, pretty well devastated liberalism as a living cultural force among people age 40 or younger, and especially intellectuals. 

It is rare that an individual changes his or her ideological outlook after age 40, so the changes wrought by 1920 would write the story of the ensuing decades, barring major new developments.


Some language reflecting institutional changes

public school system, since 1800 [American English corpus]


Pledge of Allegiance + Pledge of allegiance + pledge of allegiance, since 1850 [American English corpus]

I do (Pledge of Allegiance + Pledge of allegiance + pledge of allegiance) simply to pick up all occurrences of the differing cases. 


income tax, since 1800


government control, government regulation, since 1800


regulate business, since 1800


Some terms that really begin only in our social democratic age

social justice, economic justice * 10, since 1800


economic inequality, since 1800


equal opportunity, equality of opportunity, since 1800

Is it not astonishing that “equal opportunity” and “equality of opportunity” had almost no currency prior to 1890? 

democratic ideals, since 1800

Again, is it not astonishing that “democratic ideals” had no currency prior to 1890?

The preceding four figures suggest a link between social democratic ideology and leftist notions of equality and social justice. I think that Hayek is right that the link lies in band-man instincts and mentalities, now green-lighted by democratic and socialistic ideologies. 

nationalization, nationalisation, since 1800


living wage, since 1850


bundle of rights, bundle of clothes, since 1850

I juxtapose “bundle of rights” with “bundle of clothes” just to show that it is not as though the word “bundle” was new in the 1870s. 

Likewise, here is “property rights,” as opposed to “right of property” (e.g., the rightness in expecting others not to mess with it).

property rights, right of property, since 1800


nationalism, collectivism * 5, since 1800


socialism, capitalism, the capitalist system * 10, since 1800


right-wing, left-wing, leftist, since 1750


Some expressions that became more common

forced to work, since 1800


democracy, since 1750

The word democracy itself has undergone great change since 1880. It had signified simply rule by the demos, the population, the ordinary citizens, particularly by voting. It has come to be imbued, especially for the left, with extensive, often fanciful, facets and used as a catchword for the good.

our society, since 1750


social needs, needs of the community, needs of society, since 1800


national unity, social unity * 5, since 1800


run the country, lead the country, lead the nation, since 1800

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