What’s in a Word?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how certain words have taken on connotations that were never part of their original meanings.  Words like Patriotism; Values; Liberty; Liberal; Life…

All of these are words that a large majority might have identified with or been proud to use at one time – but no more.  Let’s explore these a little further.


What does it mean to be patriotic?  Flying the flag? Saying the Pledge of Allegiance? Joining a “Patriot Militia”? All of the above?

In my view, each of the above actions might reflect patriotism, but often they reflect something different – blind nationalism.  There’s a big difference between loving your country because of the great things it stands for and loving it because…well, just because.

Support Our TroopsFar too many of us focus on the symbols of patriotism – the flag, the pledge, “Support Our Troops” magnets on our cars – and ignore the deeper and more important aspects of it.

I love the United States deeply – but not because of its military might or economic prosperity.  Of course, I value feeling safe.  Of course, I can’t complain about the fact that I’m financially better off than most of the rest of the world.  The point is, those aren’t the things that REALLY make the U.S. a great country.

It’s our VALUES that set us apart – in particular, our strong commitment to freedom of speech and our belief in democratic government – government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”


Speaking of values – when did this word come to mean something so specific?  As in: “I believe in ‘family values’” or “she’s a ‘values voter’.”  As if people who don’t subscribe to a very specific brand of Christianity have no values.  By definition, we ALL have values.  You and I may not have same values, but very few people have NO values (they’d have to be zombies, wouldn’t they?)

Of course, there are certain things that most of humanity does agree are right or wrong – maybe these could be called universal values?  But even psychopaths have values – they’re just not values that most of us would agree with.

Liberty and Liberal:

The extreme divergence of the use of the words “liberty” and “liberal” is one of the most fascinating.  Obviously, they both have the same root – in fact, the entry for “liberty’ in the Online Etymology Dictionary (a great resource, by the way), actually says “from liber ‘free’ (see liberal)”. [My emphasis.]

One of my British friends is driven crazy by the American use of the term “Liberal,” which is used in almost exactly the opposite way in Europe.  (There, “Liberals” are those who believe in free markets and little government regulation.)

But, as the IRS flap has shown, the word liberty, like patriotism, has become the domain of the right, while “liberal” is obviously a word of the American left (used proudly or derogatorily, depending on your political orientation).


Columbine PlateIn Colorado, one version of our license plates says “Respect Life”.  These are beautiful plates with a picture of the Blue Columbine, our state flower, printed on them.  According to the Colorado Department of Revenue, This plate was created to recognize the victims and survivors of the tragic bombing and shooting at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999.”

Who knew? I didn’t – and I’m willing to bet many of the thousands of Coloradoans who have these plates didn’t either.  The phrase inevitably evokes the abortion debate and I think it’s fair to say this is the reason many people got them.

Ironically, respecting life is one of those universal values I mentioned earlier: the world over, most people will tell you that life is precious and must be protected.  Many of us who oppose capital punishment do so out of our respect for life.  Conscientious objectors refuse to go to war because they respect life.  Supporters of stricter gun laws care about this issue because we believe these will save lives.

Do you have other examples of words or phrases taking on politically charged meaning that differs from the original meaning?  If so, let us know!