Liberal (n.) - a person of liberal views. See "liberal (adj.)"
Liberal (adj.) - open to new behavior or opinions and willing to discard traditional values. Favorable to or respectful of individual rights and freedoms.
Socialist (n.) - a person who advocates or practices socialism. See "socialism (n.)"
Socialism (n.) - a political and economic theory of social organization that advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.
Name-calling is a rite of passage for most kids in school. No matter how bully-free your environment is, friends and classmates will still call each other names. Some are playful and for the most part innocent, like "scaredy-cat" or "slow-poke."
Others can be more hurtful, and in our increasingly more politically correct society it's very important to take note of the words we use. Using "gay" or "retarded" as a term for "stupid" or something we don't agree with demeans those fringe groups. I fortunately don't see many responsible adults using those kinds of words.
However, step into the ring of politics and the grown-ups take the gloves off. This is where the bullies thrive and where etymology gets tossed out of the window for the sake of argument.
My two favorite words that have fallen victim to the degradation of the English language, and that seem to be completely interchangeable now, are "liberal" and "socialist." Or, when someone wants to whip out some redundant rhetoric, they'll drop the "liberal socialist" word bomb. While not totally unique, in the attempt to be thoroughly complete their careful and methodical words fall short and just prove to be effusively verbose.
It's not that it's a bad put-down; I just don't know why it's a put-down in the first place. Don't get me wrong, I weep a little every time someone calls me a liberal. I know they mean it out of malice or pity when they do it. It's like a dismissive pat on the head, saying "It's OK, Ryan. You're too young/inexperienced/out of shape/(insert superficial reason here) to understand."
But looking at the definition, and I mean the definition not spewed out by Ann Coulter, what's wrong with being a liberal? Open to new ideas? Favorable to individual rights and freedoms? Don't conservatives basically want the same thing?
And how is a liberal a socialist? Looking at both, they seem to be a contradiction of one another. The etymologist in me must know why this is.
I was listening to a podcast on my iPhone while reading the Communist Manifesto the other day when I stumbled on Google Books' "Ngram Viewer." Those nerds over there at Google have been scanning books ... a lot of books. From those books they digitize the words and store them in a giant database that, in true Google fashion, is searchable. You can enter a word and see its usage over time, even comparing different uses of a specific word. While it can't tell you if there's a changing definition, it can tell you when a word became popular and when it was used the most.
I went ahead and graphed "liberal" and "socialist" because statistics are awesome. Looking at the first graph, 1800-2008, you can see where socialists really took off. Liberal was always moderately popular, but during the height of the Cold War all we could talk about in the English language was the threat of socialism.
After that drop off at the end of the graph, somewhere down the line it became really cool to interchange the terms. Eventually programs like this will start mapping the nearly endless stream of comments and mentions on the Internet (because we store it anyway!), and we'll see the 2008-2016 jump of the terms "liberal" and "socialist" as they become synonymous with each other. It's like we can't shake off our Cold War hangover!
That's not the part we should fear, though. Terms change. Our language evolves faster now than ever before. We should accept that and adjust. What we shouldn't accept is letting political leanings define identities, and then using those definitions as ammo for political slinging. At that point it's no longer political discourse. It's a put-down. It's demeaning, and we learned that we shouldn't call people names a long time ago.