obscure), from *leudho- "people" (cf. O.C.S. ljudu, Lith. liaudis, O.E. leod, Ger. Leute "nation, people"). Earliest reference in English is to the liberal arts
. Sense of "free in bestowing" is from late 14c. With a meaning "free from restraint in speech or action" (late 15c.) liberal was used 16c.-17c. as a term of reproach. It revived in a positive sense in the Enlightenment, with a meaning "free from prejudice, tolerant," which emerged 1776-88. Purely in reference to political opinion, "tending in favor of freedom and democracy" it dates from c.1801, from Fr. libéral, originally applied in English by its opponents (often in French form and with suggestions of foreign lawlessness) to the party favorable to individual political freedoms. But also (especially in U.S. politics) tending to mean "favorable to government action to effect social change," which seems at times to draw more from the religious sense of "free from prejudice in favor of traditional opinions and established institutions" (and thus open to new ideas and plans of reform), which dates from 1823.
"Conservative, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others." [Ambrose Bierce, "Devil's Dictionary," 1911]
The noun meaning "member of the Liberal party of Great Britain" is from 1820.