Someone once said: “We see things as we are, not as they are.” Certainly we see words as we are. And if we want to know what a word means to a man, we must know something about the man.

Look at the word liberal, for example. Dictionary definitions give it many coats and colors. In one sense it means “generous.” In another it means one who favors greater “freedom.” But another definition associates “liberal” with “licentious.” Apparently liberal means whatever we choose to think it means within wide limits.

Look at freedom, for example. Freedom doesn’t mean the same thing to all men. In some places people who think they have freedom can’t do many things that we do every day. But it doesn’t matter what we call a man who is in slavery, he is still a slave. And it doesn’t matter what we call a man who enslaves other men, he is still a tyrant.

To come again to the question: What is a “liberal”? A “liberal” may be an earnest champion of the rights of others, or he may be someone who doesn’t care whose rights he walks over. But whatever he is, just the wearing of the label doesn’t tell us what he is.

We need to look behind the label. We need to know what he is “liberal” with. Is he “liberal” with what belongs to him? Or is he “liberal” with what belongs to others? Does he want more power or less power? Does he want more control or less control? Does he favor more freedom or less freedom? The straight answers to a few such questions will often tell us what brand of “liberality” a label covers.

It isn’t a question only of names. We need to know what purpose a person pursues, what philosophy he follows, what way of life he would let other men live.

Sometimes it would seem that we give more weight to a word than we do the thing itself; for example: We are more likely to tolerate an “evil” if we call I by a glamorous or inviting name than if we call if by its right name.

Words have a way of being stealthily stolen, and it isn’t safe to place too much confidence in words unless we know the men who use them and what they mean when they use them. It isn’t safe to let words take the place of realities – for a thing is what it is, no matter what we choose to call it.

It isn’t safe to worship words.

– Richard L. Evans
“The Spoken” Word, 24 February 1952

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