• Freedom or autonomy in thought, action, or expression; the absence of restraint
  • A fundamental right or privilege (to freedom of speech, religion, etc.)
  • A freedom or allowance to move, act, or speak within certain margins or rules of conduct
  • Exaggeration or free license (usually "taking liberty")


Ah, Liberty! If there were ever a word which so succinctly summed up the American ideal, it might be this. After all, it's a word that most Americans have had ingrained in our speech from countless elementary school repetitions of The Pledge of Allegiance; and then of course one of the most important rallying cries in history, Patrick Henry's "Give me liberty, or give me death!" And of course, who isn't familiar with the iconic image of the Statue of Liberty, standing proudly in New York Harbor to mark the portal of countless immigrants.

Liberty's ubiquity in American vocabulary springs from its association with the American Revolution, during which our colonial predecessors doughtily fought for the rights and freedoms they lacked under the British rule. In a general sense, liberty is used to refer to an overall sense of freedom or independence. This usage can often describe fundamental privileges that all men and women should possess, such as freedom of expression, freedom of belief, and the right to be represented in government. In this way, liberties guide how men and women conduct their lives. However, the term can also describe autonomy in any other area. This can include freedom from physical restraint, control from other people, internal obligations, or any other type of subjugation.

Although this previous usage of liberty can be somewhat general, the word also has several other, more specific applications. A liberty can refer to a certain specific freedom or ability given by an authority. Usually, this type of freedom is notable because it's something not generally given to everyone– the possessor is understood to be an exception as a result of extenuating circumstances or the position he or she holds. For example, an ambulance might be given liberty to drive on the wrong side of the road during an emergency, and there are certain areas of the White House that only the President has liberty to access. Also important to this usage is the idea that these types of freedoms are only bestowed within certain boundaries – for instance, the ambulance from the previous example might be allowed to drive on the wrong side of the road, but it wouldn't have liberty to endanger pedestrians. In this case, one who has such a freedom might be referred to as being "at liberty." Similarly, being "at liberty" can indicate that one is not busy, having no tasks to occupy (and therefore restrict) his time.

Finally, liberty is sometimes used to describe an exaggeration or unconventional license taken in conversation or action. In context, this usage is sometimes phrased as "taking liberties." In this sense, the word implies that a risk is taken with something that is usually not done or acceptable – e.g. if you're feeling especially flippant, you might take the liberty to say something rude to your boss. Liberty can also apply to a fuzzy stance on the truth in speech, writing, or art, a fudge factor, if you will. For instance, a political cartoon might take liberties with a candidate's stance on an issue by caricaturizing something he did for comical effect.

Example: The doctor's note gave Timmy liberty from attending gym class that afternoon

Example: Because of their contract of confidentiality, the psychiatrist was not at liberty to discuss the condition of his patient.

Example: Believe it or not, American women did not have the liberty to vote until the 19th amendment was ratified in 1920.

Example: The candidate took liberties with facts in his speech in order to attract votes

Derivative Words

Liberate is a verb which describes the act of freeing someone or something from bonds or control. Similarly, liberation is a noun that refers to the sensation of newly found freedom, and a liberator is a person or thing which releases another.

Another word-family that branches off from liberty is that of the term liberal, which is most commonly used as an adjective to describe something that is generous, relaxed, or open to change or interpretation. Also in this family is the noun liberality, a term that is used to mean open-mindedness or willingness to change. From this stems liberalism, which refers to a school of thought that focuses on change as the impetus of progress, especially in the political realm. And liberalize is a verb that describes the action of loosening or making something less constrained.

Finally, liberty shares its root with the word libertine, a term which denotes someone who is a freethinker or who chooses to live or act unconventionally. The practice of such a life is known as libertinism. This concept is related to libertarian, which describes a person who believes that government should have no control whatsoever over people's actions; in politics, this school of thought is called libertarianism. Whew – all these derivatives indicate that liberty is truly a powerful little word!


As proud as Americans are of their sense of liberty, the word actually has a background much older than the stars and stripes. At its root is the phrase liber, the Latin word for "free." From there the word evolved into the Latin libertatem, which describes the state of being unfettered by bonds or outside subjugation. This concept was taken up in the Old French liberte and expanded to imply a more general sense of freedom of choice and thought. Liberty had entered English in its current form by the end of the fourteenth century. This origin is fitting; it seems that French not only gave the U.S. the Statue of Liberty, they also nudged the word itself into our lexicon. Merci!

In Literature

From Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.'s Elsie Venner:

Liberty is often a heavy burden on a man. It involves that necessity for perpetual choice which is the kind of labor men have always dreaded.

This lament, which could well be from a modern day entrepreneur, was written by Holmes in his 1861 novel, explaining that the freewill associated with liberty comes at a price: that every man is responsible for his own actions.


  • Liberty is freedom from captivity!
  • Library gives Liberty to freely read.


Independence, America, Founding Fathers, Freedom, Politics

Bring out the linguist in you! What is your own interpretation of liberty. Did you use liberty in a game? Provide an example sentence or a literary quote.