Monday, November 24, 2014

Word of the Week: Freelance

Robert de Normandie
at the Siege of Antioch 1097–1098
by J.J. Dassy, 1850
I was watching a documentary on the lance, the medieval weapon of choice for mounted knights. In the last segment, the host mentions that knights who became mercenaries during lulls in the Hundred Years' War were known as free-lances. The lance was their principal weapon and they were serving someone freely. The free part refers to the absence of a feudal obligation, not the absence of payment. Wow, I thought, what a fascinating word history.

Unfortunately, the story isn't true, at least not in the realm of historical reality. No one in the middle ages used the term free-lance to designate mercenaries. The term was an invention of Sir Walter Scott, who used it twice in the text of Ivanhoe (1820).
I?—I offered Richard the service of my Free Lances, and he refused them—I will lead them to Hull, seize on shipping, and embark for Flanders; thanks to the bustling times, a man of action will always find employment.
—from Chapter XXXIV

Trust me, Estoteville alone has strength enough to drive all thy Free Lances into the Humber.
—from Chapter XXXIV
Freelance combines a word of Old English origin with a word of French origin. Free derives from Old English freo, which meant exempt from or not in bondage as well as noble or joyful. Freo comes from Proto-Germanic *frijaz, which derives from PIE *prijos, meaning beloved or dear. The transition from beloved to the sense of freedom from bondage may have occured when the term was applied to members of a clan as opposed to slaves who served members of the clan. The sense of not costing anything developed in the 1580s from the idea “free of cost.” Lance entered English usage during the later half of the thirteenth century as Middle English launce, which derives from Old French lance and Latin lancea.

With the success of Ivanhoe, freelance took on a life of its own, sweeping into English usage with the force of a medieval cavalry charge. By the 1860s, freelance was being used figuratively. By the early twentieth century, it had morphed into an adjective, verb, and adverb. All thanks to Scott's historical inaccuracy.


  1. I really like the "untrue" explanation at the top. It made sense to me! lol Thanks for the info!

  2. Fascinating. The term reminds me of "sellsword" from Game of Thrones...

  3. Ironic and yet . . . behold, the power of the pen wielded with mighty strokes!