What is the etymology of the phrase flaming liberal?
December 5, 2005 2:12 PM   Subscribe

What is the etymology of the phrase flaming liberal?

My English professor, bless her labor union loving heart, repeatedly uses the phrase flaming liberal. It always struck me as a bit odd falling from her lips, so I asked one day, "Do you mean liberals that are on fire or only homosexual liberals?"

NOTE: I'm the kind of student who asks such questions, so it didn't strike her as rude or out of character.

After the giggles subsided, she explained she meant neither, but did not know when it came into the common vernacular. If I were a gambling man, I'd put my money on the notion that she means bleeding heart liberal, but has probably heard the phrase enough on the evening news that she's simply swapping the two in her mind.

dictionary.com uses the phrase as an example of the informal use of the adjective flaming. Is it this simple or would Log Cabin Republicans be flaming conservatives?

For what it is worth, my best guess is that as the phrase flaming came into popular use as an adjective to describe flamboyant homosexuals during the 1970's, the nascent backlash culture was less skilled in couching their beliefs in politically safe language.

http://googlefight.com tells me that flaming conservative isn't very popular.

I am seriously looking for an etymology of the phrase, so please keep your humorous anecdotes to a minimum.
posted by sequential to Society & Culture (13 answers total)
I presume it's a riff on the phrase 'flaming homosexual', or 'flaming heterosexual' as it is sometimes used (ironically).
posted by unSane at 2:16 PM on December 5, 2005

I think "flaming asshole" came first. Possibly the prevalence of political "flamewars" online has had something to do with the phrase's fairly recent popularity. Politics is a very common topic of such tirades (been on Fark lately?).

The Free On-line Dictionary of Computing defines "flame" as "To rant, to speak or write incessantly and/or rabidly on some relatively uninteresting subject or with a patently ridiculous attitude or with hostility toward a particular person or group of people." Which exactly what a flaming liberal is (by definition, at least)
posted by CaptApollo at 2:23 PM on December 5, 2005

Possibly the prevalence of political "flamewars" online has had something to do with the phrase's fairly recent popularity.

I don't think so; I grew up frequently hearing this term many years before the internets. (My parents -- former flaming liberals themselves! -- used it proudly to describe themselves back in the '70s and '80s; they now use it dismissively to refer not only to my sister and me but basically to anyone even slightly more moderate than Karl Rove.)
posted by scody at 3:22 PM on December 5, 2005

From the OED:

flaming, ppl. a.

2c. Used euphemistically for a profane epithet. Also as adv.
1922 D. H. LAWRENCE England, my England 230 I've never been patient to no flaming doctor, and hope I never shall be. 1936 Punch 10 June 646/1 Some flaming person has gone and stolen my flaming bicycle-pump, flame it all!

3c. Of a person: Gaudy, ‘loud’, flaring.
1781 R. KING London Spy 95 A serjeant of the guards entered..with a flaming wench.
posted by sanko at 3:25 PM on December 5, 2005

At Merriam-Webster Online (you'll have to actually click on "flaming" to see it), it suggests that the word is simply a synonym for "intense, passionate." That seems to make sense in the context of "flaming liberal" or flaming anything, really.
posted by Gator at 3:26 PM on December 5, 2005

I always thought flaming came from faggot, which is a bundle of sticks used to start a fire. And that flaming liberal was an insulting label used by conservatives to characterize all liberals as fitting one particular stereotype, similar to the way they depict welfare queens and mean atheists.
*All of that is completely made up, but it is what I've always imagined.
posted by leapingsheep at 3:27 PM on December 5, 2005

I was called a "flaming liberal" by a teacher in HS (Mr. Blake) c. 1991. So it's existed since at least the early 90's. Who's got an earlier source?
posted by Mayor Curley at 4:11 PM on December 5, 2005

I'd consider that the general tendency of liberals to support gay rights leads to a mix of "Flaming homosexuals" and "Flaming liberals". As well, it can't hurt that it's in line with "Flaming asshole", which likely came from fart-lighters. Seeing as conservatives often view liberals as senseless as lighting a fart, it's in line. Of course, that last part is probably just conveniently coincidental. It sounds more like a backstage joke between Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity.

While the use of flaming as a mild epithet is fascinating, I suspect that the link between gay rights and accusing someone of being gay is most in line with heated debate between political ideologies. After all, discrediting the other person's argument by questioning their sexuality wasn't always just an elementary school tactic.

As an aside, I do believe I'll have to start using the term "Flaming conservative".
posted by Saydur at 4:36 PM on December 5, 2005

I wouldn't suggest there's any gay link there - flaming certainly doesn't conjure any gay connotations in my mind.
posted by wilful at 4:42 PM on December 5, 2005

Wikipedia has a long, long list of adjectives which have been lobbed at liberals over the years. "Flaming Liberal" is awaiting a registered Wikipedia user to create a page for it.
posted by Carol Anne at 6:19 PM on December 5, 2005

I think CaptAppollo has it.
posted by xammerboy at 8:24 PM on December 5, 2005

"Flaming liberal" as a term predates the once-obscure computer jargon "flame", although they're probably related. ("Flamboyant" is simply French for "in flames", by the way.)

It certainly had a widespread, mainstream jocular usage even by liberals when I was growing up. I would say it definitely precedes "card-carrying liberal", which was pretty much invented by the Bush I campaign to use against Dukakis.

I have no doubt that some conservatives like the idea that it has a connection to "flaming homosexual"; after all, they went around saying "San Francisco Democrats" for years after the SF DNC convention. And the apparent connection to board flaming can't hurt, either.

A9 results were helpful here: the term shows up in a 1970 NYT headline ("Hot Time in Texas for a Flaming Liberal") cited in a 1973 book. It may just reflect Amazon's inventory and search-inside-ability, but there seems to be an uptick in usage in the late 80s, then a major one since 2000. The earlier usages were much more lighthearted; the most recent usages are usually right-wing vituperation.
posted by dhartung at 10:53 PM on December 5, 2005

dhartung, thanks for the citations. I didn't think of using A9 while I am, for the moment, unable to check academic databases. I believe, though I can not state without a doubt, that sanko's citation of the euphemistic form of flaming from the OED is also spot on.

Furthermore, dhartung, I think your insight into trends of usage are reasonable, if not correct. Perhaps flaming liberal precipitated flaming homosexual or flaming heterosexual, but I believe they are all "used euphemistically for a profane epithet".

I appreciate all of your responses and insights. If you have further evidence in support of or against what I've marked as best answers, don't hesitate to share it. I can always change the best answers.
posted by sequential at 10:32 AM on December 6, 2005

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