The Surprising Origin Of Freelancing And The Word ‘Freelancer’

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Finding out where words come from is a fascinating subject. It is interesting to understand just how a word came to be, and the circumstances in which our ancestors would use them. Etymology is the scientific study of the origin of words. Let’s have a look the origin of the word ‘freelancer’.

In what historical time period was the word freelancer used? In what region was it first used? How did it spread from its point of origin to other areas?

Freelancer or freelancing are terms currently used to mean a person who is self-employed, and is in the business of selling their services and skills to different employers for a specified time period. ‘Free’ is derived from a Germanic word that means to ‘love’, while ‘lance’ is akin to the French word that means to ‘launch’, or discharge with force. Other words similar to freelancer are independent worker, and independent contractor.

Today you can find many professional freelancers at who can help you out with all kinds of work.

The Wikipedia search engine attributes the first printed use of the word to Sir Walter Scott in 1819, in his book Ivanhoe. He talks of a feudal lord who refers to his paid army as ‘free lances’. From this we understand the term free-lance was used to refer to Italian and French mercenaries, who would offer their combat skills and weapons (the lance) to anyone willing to pay.

From the Middle Ages through to the Renaissance period, there were soldiers loyal to their kings and lords, and those who worked for whoever paid. These were the free lances. They were hired by noblemen and feudal lords who wanted military help to secure more land and property.

However, most of the people claiming the first use of ‘freelance’ in Ivanhoe have only used Wikipedia as a point of reference.  The Ngram viewer - software by Google books - enables you to comb through old and out of print books, and show the use of words and terms that you search for.  According to this site, the word ‘free-lance’ is used in a 1716 book - but this book is not viewable.

There is another book cited in the database older than Sir Walter’s book - The Life and Times of Hugh Miller by Thomas N. Brown, written in 1809.  It also uses the word ‘freelance’ in reference to a mercenary soldier called Hugh Miller, who was described as being a soldier who was loyal to the King and not a freelance.

Despite declining interest in the services of these free lances in Europe, the word lived on and gained a much broader meaning. It was used to mean a politician who had no political affiliation; what is now termed an independent. How it came to be a word meaning any person who sells their works is not clear, but it came to have this meaning about ninety years ago.

The Inferiority Complex of Old Sippy by Wodehouse, written in 1930, gives a peek into the meaning of freelance as it was during this time. We are told of a writer who enjoyed making a living as a freelance writer, before getting a more structured position as a salaried editor. He referenced a person who was living happily as a freelancer, showing it was a fairly common idea at this time.

The Ngram chart shows how the word ‘freelance’ has changed over time. From being two distinct words ‘free lance’ in the early 1800s, to the hyphenated ‘free-lance’ in the 1920s , and finally the integrated ‘freelance’ that became popular in the 1970s, and is currently used. ‘Free Lance’, was changed into a noun in the 1860s, it was used to mean journalistic freelancing in 1884, and became recognized as verb in 1903 by the Oxford dictionary. Now it is known for its noun, adverb and adjective form. ‘Freelancer' is the derivative noun that is normally used today, but the original term was freelance; as in, ‘he is a freelance’.

The term has evolved through time, from the military scene to the business arena. Today freelancing is dominant in industries like music, writing, programming, web design, and translating. The root meaning of the word remains unchanged.

The Etymological dictionary by Chambers provides a more detailed definition of a freelancer:  a mercenary knight and/or men-at-arms that roamed Europe after the crusades; a politician without affiliation; anyone who does work for others only for a particular, usually short term,  basis.

Over time, freelancers offered their services to local businesses and local organizations to help bolster sales. Attending industry networking events was the only sure way of getting clients. Most freelancers would work in their local area; a few lucky ones would have international clients.

With the internet age, many people found a place as a freelancer. Professionals in different fields started looking for clients through the internet, and working on a project by project basis. Just about anyone can be a freelancer, because it is spread across all sectors. Many already established freelancers are moving to co-working spaces where people can be self-employed but still enjoy the company of others.

The word freelance was used in connection with the ability of mercenary soldiers’ to sell their skills and tools to separate buyers.  Today modern freelancers are also identified by the tools they use - the internet, laptops and smartphones, and their ability to offer their services and skills to different clients. This shows that throughout history men sold their skills and tools, and although these tools and skills have changed, like the people that came before us, we still take pride in selling our work and doing what we need to make a living. Kings and lords have been replaced by businesses, while the freelancers are professionals in different fields.

There are currently more freelancers than during any other time, and even more freelancing opportunities. It is rather comforting to know this art has been in existence for hundreds of years, and will likely continue to be so. More people will continue to do what they enjoy, and make a living out of it.

Do you have any ideas of how the word freelancer came to be? Share your thoughts below!


Publié 23 août, 2017


Freelance Journalist & Reporter

Alice is a Community Correspondent at She drifts between London & Sydney.

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