• Generous and abundant in actions and amount

  • (in politics) Open to and in favor of progressive values, social reform, and broader interpretation of legal doctrines

  • (in education) Concerned with a well-rounded intelligence or learning in the humanities

  • Approximate;Not strict or literal


  • (sometimes Liberal) A supporter of a liberal political party or movement

  • One whose beliefs (typically religious and political) are progressive


The most common use of liberal is its political meaning. Someone who is liberal tends to stray from the societal norm, or supports social justice and activist movements. For example, someone who doesn't believe in gender norms and wants to deconstruct masculinity and femininity could be labeled as liberal, or having a liberal perspective on gender. Liberal people also heavily value individual freedom, so one who doesn't want laws or regulations to constrict personal autonomy could also be described as liberal. Though liberal often has a positive or negative connotation based on views of the individual describing something or someone as such; by definition it is neutral.

A second application of liberal relates to academic philosophies. Someone with a liberal view of higher education is a person who seeks a well-rounded or comprehensive education. They tend to seek out knowledge in all subjects, rather than just focusing on one. Liberal education is a similar philosophy to that of the scholars of the Renaissance period of European history. This meaning of liberal is associated with Liberal Arts, meaning open and well-rounded programs.

Another use of liberal which is unrelated to politics describes ample amounts. If someone gives out money in a liberal way, it means they aren't skimpy or frugal with it. This meaning of liberal is sometimes associated with charity or donations. Liberal is the opposite of economical, though the former doesn't always mean irresponsible. A mother could, for example, send her child off to camp with a liberal supply of band aids.

Another application of liberal characterizes something as figurative, approximate, or not strictly verbatim. Liberal can refer to adaptations of facts or regulations, or to loose interpretations. It is not usually concerned with exact details but, rather, with the overall meaning. Depending on the situation, it can connote open-mindedness or unscrupulousness. A liberal application of civil rights would be more inclusive, thus protecting more individuals, while a liberal attitude toward your project deadlines will probably get you in trouble.

Liberal as a noun is most prevalent when used to designate followers of the Liberal Party. The Liberal Party usually refers to that of the UK, but the term can also relate to freethinking politicians or their followers in the US, or potentially any other country. People of this group tend to be reformists, progressive, and advocates of individual freedom.

Similarly, a liberal can distinguish any person who opposes the conventional and tends to support reforms. It can be applied in any country’s politics, education, or beliefs. Such a person is not specific to any group or movement, but simply has an open-minded outlook on life.

Example: They began to educate themselves on current events and realized they agreed with liberal opinions and movements.

Example: When he couldn't decide what college major to study, he chose the more liberal program.

Example: Despite not having much, the family always found a way to be liberal with their money.

Example: She liked to put a liberal amount of butter on her toast.

Example: Her liberal interpretation of the rulebook led to a lot of unnecessary trouble.

Example: When the history teacher asked the students to group themselves based on their political beliefs, the majority identified themselves as liberals.

Example: Whenever serious conversations begin, it is easy to detect the liberals and conservatives in the room.


Liberal, in its political application, takes its root from the Latin word liberalis which means “gracious,” “noble,” and “of freedom or free men.” The body liber translates to “free” and “unrestrained.” These uses of liberal continued in Old French in the 1100s, meaning “generous” or “of free men.” People began using liberal with a negative connotation in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, implying that those described as such were “unrestrained” in conversation or action. On the other hand, only a century later, the term was positively used to mean “open-minded” during the Enlightenment. Then, in the beginning of the 1800s, the French word libéral preserved the term's political definition by referring to a party that believes in freedom. Only a few decades later, the use of liberal highlighted social freedom, tolerance, and reform in American politics. Liberal began to describe a member and supporter of the British Liberal Party in 1820. Finally, liberal transformed into a description of an ideology that strayed from traditional social, political, and religious beliefs in 1920s. All of these uses can be seen commonly today in politics.

The idea of liberal in education also came from the Latin root liber, but this sense meant that a “free man,” one who was not enslaved and had civil rights, was the only type of person good enough for enlightenment. This is why a liberal education is considered to be well-rounded and focused on a wide range of concepts and subjects rather than pinpointing a specific trade or skill.

Derivative Words

Liberally: The adverb form of liberal describes the generosity or nonspecific nature of an action.

Example: When distributing the food, she filled the bowls liberally.

Liberalization: This noun form of liberal is the act of relaxing laws.

Example: Under the new policy of trade liberalization, tariffs on imports were reduced, lessening regulation.

Liberalism: This noun form of liberal is the political belief based on liberty and equality.

Example: A core belief of the left-leaning reform party was liberalism.

Liberality: This additional noun form derived from liberal is the quality of giving in abundance and having an unprejudiced outlook.

Example: Her liberality made her one of the most celebrated philanthropists in her community.

Liberalize: Liberalize, a verb derivation of liberal, is the act of removing restrictions, usually in politics or economics.

Example: After finding the restrictions too strict, they agreed the best solution was to liberalize their interpretation and enforcement of the law.

Similar Words

Liberty: Liberty takes the same Latin root as liberal, liber, and accordingly relates to “free” and “freedom.” Liberty is the freedom from oppression, the possession of individual freedom in society, and the overall uninhibited choice they retain to determine their own choices and actions.

Example: In the United States, citizens have the liberty to express themselves in any way they choose, so long as it is not harmful to others.

In Literature

From Henry David Thoreau’s I to Myself: An Annotated Selection from the Journal of Henry D. Thoreau

Freedom of speech! It hath not entered into your hearts to conceive what those words mean. It is not leave given me by your sect to say this or that; it is when leave is give to your sect to withdraw. The church, the state, the school, the magazine, think they are liberal and free! It is the freedom of a prison-yard. I ask only that one fourth part of my honest thoughts be spoken aloud.

In his journal entry, Thoreau rails against the misleading freedom to express oneself that institutions such as the church and the state claim to engender. Rather, he contends, any claim to tolerating truly unorthodox and forward-looking, or liberal, free speech is an empty promise, and that in the church and the government there are topics which they would not permit their membership to broach.

From Paul Waldman’s blog post for The Washington Post, “If Clinton wins, the country will get even more liberal”:

But they should gird themselves for worse, because if Clinton does win, after Tuesday, America is going to become more liberal in a whole variety of ways.

In this election analysis piece in the Washington Post, Waldman speculates that, should Hillary Clinton become President of the United States, policies throughout the federal and many state governments will become more progressive, inclusive, and in favor of individual rights, or liberal. He goes on to provide examples, such as how under a hypothetical President Clinton, Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare would be thwarted and, thus, even traditionally conservative states might be persuaded to accept reforms to healthcare provision.


Liberal in American Politics: American liberalism focuses greatly on the unassailable individual rights a person possesses: freedom of speech, press, and religion, equal treatment before the law, and equality in all aspects of life and society. In support of these ideals, liberals often endorse wider latitude in the interpretation and administration of the constitution and other legal frameworks. Two distinct subcategories of American liberalism are classical liberalism and modern liberalism (modern meaning from the time of Roosevelt’s New Deal). Those who identify as classical liberals, libertarians, and fiscal conservatives believe in the foundational beliefs of liberalism, but disagree with modern liberalism by eschewing welfare programs and de-emphasizing economic equality. It is important to note that the only relation between fiscal conservativism and liberalism is their shared belief in personal freedoms. Modern liberals believe welfare is a useful tool of government, and that economic equality takes precedence over economic freedom, whereas classical liberals, libertarians, and fiscal conservatives support the opposite. Most liberals in modern American politics identify with the Democratic Party and, as such, liberal is often used as a stand-in or synonym for Democrat.

Liberal in UK Politics: The Liberal Party in the United Kingdom began when the Whigs, Peelites, and Radicals convened in 1859. Liberal does not exclusively pertain to supporters and members of the Liberal Party, though this is how the term is most commonly applied as that group champions the ideals of liberalism. Similar to the American usage, the different applications of the term liberalism fall under classical, social, economic, and political spheres. The simplest use of liberal in the UK refers to a Liberal Democratic Party supporter, but it can also just define the beliefs of a person regardless of their place in the left or right wing.


  • Liberals lead enlightened lives.

  • Liberals feel at liberty to reinterpret established traditions.


Politics, Government, Progressive, Ideology, Beliefs, US, UK

Bring out the linguist in you! What is your own interpretation of liberal. Did you use liberal in a game? Provide an example sentence or a literary quote.