Etymology and definition
Words such as liberal, liberty, libertarian and libertine all trace their history to the Latin liber, which means "free". One of the first recorded instances of the word "liberal" occurs in 1375, when it was used to describe the liberal arts in the context of an education desirable for a free-born man. The word's early connection with the classical education of a medieval university soon gave way to a proliferation of different denotations and connotations. "Liberal" could refer to "free in bestowing" as early as 1387, "made without stint" in 1433, "freely permitted" in 1530 and "free from restraint"—often as a pejorative remark—in the 16th and the 17th centuries. In 16th century England, "liberal" could have positive or negative attributes in referring to someone's generosity or indiscretion. In Much Ado About Nothing, William Shakespeare wrote of "a liberal villaine" who "hath [...] confest his vile encounters". With the rise of the Enlightenment, the word acquired decisively more positive undertones, being defined as "free from narrow prejudice" in 1781 and "free from bigotry" in 1823. In 1815, the first use of the word "liberalism" appeared in English. In Spain, the liberales, the first group to use the liberal label in a political context, fought for decades for the implementation of the 1812 Constitution. From 1820 to 1823 during the Trienio Liberal, King Ferdinand VII was compelled by the liberales to swear to uphold the Constitution. By the middle of the 19th century, "liberal" was used as a politicised term for parties and movements worldwide.
Over time, the meaning of the word "liberalism" began to diverge in different parts of the world. According to the Encyclopædia Britannica: "In the United States, liberalism is associated with the welfare-state policies of the New Deal programme of the Democratic administration of Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt, whereas in Europe it is more commonly associated with a commitment to limited government and laissez-faire economic policies". Consequently, in the United States the ideas of individualism and laissez-faire economics previously associated with classical liberalism became the basis for the emerging school of libertarian thought and are key components of American conservatism.
Unlike Europe and Latin America, the word "liberalism" in North America almost exclusively refers to social liberalism. The dominant Canadian party is the Liberal Party and the United States' Democratic Party is usually considered liberal.