Spanish ex-, Spanish liberals?

Victor Steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Tue Apr 6 08:16:33 UTC 2010

[OED Note--Liberal, A. adj. 5. 1801 --> 1776]

I don't speak Spanish, unfortunately, and I don't know the history and
etymology of the corresponding words in Spanish. Nor do I have
particular expertise in the area necessary for full analysis for these
propositions. But my /opinion/ is that these claims make about as much
sense as Dan Quayle's notion that he should have studied Latin better in
school, so he could speak it on his trip to in Latin America.

Historically, there was not a lot of crossover between England and
Spain, especially in political discourse. If indeed the "influence"
comes from early contacts, what would they have been? 1790s, in response
to the French Revolution? Perhaps colonial contacts shortly before the
American Revolution? Negotiations over alliances preceding the Dutch

Spain was hardly the source of liberal thought before the 19th
century--not to be prejudicial, but I can think of English, French,
German, Dutch and Italian sources on the subject, but none from Spain.
And AFAIK the contacts between English and Spanish were minimal prior to
that as well. So if there was an impact, it would have to be
post-Napoleonic. If I missed something contrary to this, I'd love to
find out. The OED citation is 1801, which is just at the edge of
possible contact--but, again, there would have to be substantial work on
liberal politics written in Spanish around that time that could have
influenced the writings of English and American political philosophers.
Absent that, even if there were substantial contacts, I don't see how
such influence could have occurred.

Searching for "liberal" its political sense" would be a major pain if
one had to go through every incarnation of "liberal" and try to
ascertain its meaning individual. Fortunately, there are shortcuts.
Let's try "liberal politics".
The speech of the Right Honourable Charles James Fox, at a general
meeting of the electors of Westminster, assembled in Westminster-Hall,
July 17, 1782: ... Taken in short-hand by W. Blanchard, ...
[source and date verified internally and through WorldCat, full document
is available on-line, but by subscription]
> This is the plan of broad, just, liberal politics that I always wish
> to see observed through every part of British empire ...

1782 seems to be the earliest (pay no attention to the 1774 one--it's
actually 1890). But there is another source from 1793. And that's just
the specific combination "liberal politics". More importantly, the 1802
and 1803 printings of The State of Europe Before and After the French
Revolution uses "liberal politics" in a way to suggest perfectly
accepted usage, so the phrase was in circulation, at least in the period
preceding the printing of the text (perhaps influenced by the French
Revolution itself--or by some other events that caused the formation of
a "liberal government").

Changing the search string to "liberal government" gets a bunch of false
hits, but also a handful of hits from the 1780s and 1790s. So the
adjective was certainly in heavy use in the "political sense"--and not
just on the Island (as the OED 1801 reference and the 1802 reference
above suggest).
The London magazine, or, Gentleman's monthly intelligencer. Volume 52.
1783. p. 179/2
[Reprinted from] The Royal Gazette Extraordinary. New York, July 12, 1783
> A CIRCULAR LETTER from his Excellency George Washington, Commander in
> Chief of the Armies of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, dated June the
> 18th, 1783.
> Head-Quarters, Newburgh, June 18, 1783.
> I am aware, however, those who differ from me in political sentiments
> may, perhaps, remark, I am stepping out of the proper line of my duty
> ; and they may possibly ascribe to arrogance or ostentation what I
> know is alone the result of the purest intention : but the rectitude
> of my own heart, which disdains such unworthy motives ; the part I
> have hitherto acted in life ; the determination I have formed of not
> taking any share in public business hereafter ; the ardent desire I
> feel, and shall continue to manifest, of quietly enjoying in private
> life, after all the toils of war, the benefits of a wife and liberal
> government, will, I flatter myself, sooner or later, convince my
> countrymen, that I could have no sinister views in delivering, with so
> little reserve, the opinions contained in this address.

The Circular Letter to Governors of July 1783 can indeed be found in
most Americana collections.
State of the present form of government of the province of Quebec; By
James Monk. 1789. p. 6
> These gracious intentions of establishing a free and liberal
> government in that province, were further confirmed by his Majesty's
> commission of Civil Governor to General Murray, dated 21 of November
> 1763, which recites ...

I must say that it is intriguing (to me, at least) that both phrases
seem to pop up in the early 1780s. But this should really not be so
surprising if the OED entry A.5. is considered carefully.

Pushing the point a bit back, to 1776, more specifically, to May 10,
1776, we find,
Title: Proceedings of the Convention of Delegates, held at the Capitol,
in the city of Williamsburg, in the colony of Virginia, on Monday the
6th of May, 1776
> A representation from the committee of the county of /Augusta/ was
> presented to the Convention, and read ; setting forth the present
> unhappy situation of the country, and, from the ministerial measures
> of vengeance now pursuing, representing the necessity of making the
> confederacy of the United Colonies the most perfect, independent, and
> lasting ; and of framing an equal, free, and liberal government, that
> may bear the test of all future ages.
> /Ordered/, that the said representation be referred to the committee
> on the state of the colony.

As far as the Revolutionary rhetoric of 1776 is concerned, there might
have been some French or Dutch influence, but I very much doubt there
was any Spanish influence--this is a historical, not a linguistic
statement. Again, direct evidence is hard to come by, but if there was
any historical significance to the British American connection with
Spain--or Spanish colonies--we would have heard of it by now.

It also goes without saying that the word "liberal" in other contexts is
cited in the OED going back to the same period (even the same author) as
the ex- in the sense "former". I am not going to touch the latter, aside
from saying that that connection seems even more dubious, given the
prevalence of Latin as the language of scholarship at the time when the
earliest OED citations appear, and the OED mention of French influences.

So, with apologies to professors Avila and Fernandez-Armesto, filial
piety only goes so far.


On 4/5/2010 7:00 PM, Federico Escobar wrote:
> I read recently of two alleged examples of the influence of Spanish on
> English, but I have found no real evidence to back up either claim.
> The first was presented by the Colombian grammarian Fernando Avila, who said
> that the widespread use of the prefix ex- in English, as in ex-president or
> ex-wife, is due to the common use of that prefix in Spanish (in fact, "ex"
> is now used as an adjective in that language: "ex presidente", for
> instance). OED2 ("ex-" prefix1, 3) has political examples going back to 1398
> and the broader use is attributed to the influence of French. Thus, this
> does not seem to give credence to Avila's claim, but then again it is
> difficult to ascertain the frequency of use from the OED. No other
> dictionary I turned to gave any useful additional information.
> The second comes from the British historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, in his
> book *The Americas: A Hemispheric History*. On page 198, the author says
> this: "The word *liberal* in its political sense is one of the terms English
> owes to Spanish." Again, the OED does not present any direct link to
> Spanish, and neither did any other dictionaries I checked.
> Does anybody think these statements are plausible?
> F.

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