The Origin of the Word Freelance and Why it Should Make Us Happy
Writing about the modern work environment can have certain side effects, namely that you begin to pass the information around you through the broad filter of the freelancing and coworking movements. You hear an album that was recorded in the artist’s bedroom and think about self-determination and access to cheap technology. You see a film about pirates and think about organization and collaboration. Given that I’ve known only freelance work for the past ten years however, one could rightly argue that my mind is already set to that default. So it was no surprise, as I was reading a book of short stories from P.G. Wodehouse, when the word free-lance (with a hyphen), leapt off the page and into my wandering mind. What could be the origin of the word so widely used today yet seemingly so different from its literal meaning?
In a story titled The Inferiority Complex of Old Sippy, written in 1930, Wodehouse gives us a peek into the idea of a freelancer nearly eighty-five years ago:
All these editor blokes, I understand, get pretty careworn after they’ve been at the job for awhile. Six months before, Sippy had been a cheery cove, full of happy laughter, but at that time he was what they call a free-lance, bunging in a short story here and a set of verses there and generally enjoying himself.
Wodehouse was referring to a writer who makes a joyful living as a freelancer before turning to what we would consider a more structured position as a salaried editor. But writing aside, this got me thinking. How long has the term freelance been used to indicate someone who sells their work or projects on an individual basis and is not beholden to one particular boss?
A quick scan of the internet reveals many brief articles about the origin of the word freelance and all seem to be in agreement that the first use of the word in print comes from the book Ivanhoe written by Sir Walter Scott in 1819. He writes,
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.
The meaning here is simple and self explanatory. A mercenary solider offers his work and his weapons to the highest bidder. The curious thing though, is that most people claiming Ivanhoe as the first use of the word, merely cited the Wikipedia entry for the word freelance. Although Wikipedia is a shining example of crowd sourcing and coworking, and is generally a reliable source for questions of this sort, something didn’t feel right. I felt the nagging tug of unanswered questions so I pulled out my digital shovel and got to work.
Over at Google Books you can use their Ngram viewer to search the massive database of books they have compiled. The Library Project by Google was created to let anybody search through old, rare and out-of-print books while protecting the rights of publishers and authors. It is essentially a virtual card catalog, but the coolest part of the whole project is the Ngram viewer. It can compare and chart the use and frequency of relevant words over hundreds of years, in relation to the books in the database. I poured myself a coffee, settled down at my desk and entered the words free lance, free-lance, and freelance.
A chart appeared, spanning the last five hundred years, on which were three undulating lines representing the different spellings of the word freelance as it evolved through time. Interestingly, the oldest reference to the word in Google Books is in 1716, but while words and phrases are searchable, due to some copyright restrictions not all the books are viewable. But there is at least one book in the database that precedes Ivanhoe. The Life and Times of Hugh Miller by Thomas N. Brown was written in 1809 and provides an even earlier reference to a free lance. Like Sir Walter Scott, Brown also used the term in reference to a mercenary solider:
But when the battle was hottest, Hugh Miller was a loyal combatant, not a free lance.
Now, does it matter who used the term first if it seems that the meaning was the same in both cases? I can’t fully answer that, but I mention it to illustrate the research tools available for freelancers today and the inherent serendipity of the research itself. First, the origin of the word freelance is clearly due to a visual connection with the tools of the mercenary soldiers of the time and their unfettered ability to sell their work to separate buyers. Though the idea of a mercenary was not new in the 18th century, the idea of describing them by their available tools was, and as books became more common and cheaper to produce, the clever and descriptive term free lance was thrust into the collective conversation.
Enter any popular coworking space or coffee shop today and you will see the tools by which we identify the modern freelancers: internet access, software heavy laptops and data filled smartphones. Like those in times past, freelancers today are also identified by their separate clients and the tools they use. Their work and their weapons. It’s easy to visualize thousands of freelancers huddled around their tools in coworking spaces around the world today. Individual yet connected. An army of creative mercenaries.
Second, using the Ngram chart as a guide, you can clearly see the evolution of the word freelance over time. The two separate words free lance, were used more often than any other spellings through the early 1800s, until the hyphenated version, free-lance,began to take over in popularity in the 1920s. Finally in the late 1970s, writers eschewed the hyphen in favor of pushing the words together. A seamless solution for an integrated word in a further integrated world. The word became simply, freelance.
Our tendency with language is to make words streamlined over time, and our workplaces and work lives are no different. Where we once worked apart from each other, plying our trades in dark and isolated offices, we now prefer the light filled openness of the modern coworking space. We have removed the extraneous parts of the traditional office and have whittled coworking spaces down to their essence. Concurrently, our work lives have also followed suit. We can now carry an entire office in our briefcase: phone, rolodex, copy machine, file cabinet, internet, etc. We have been simplifying the physical workspace by placing so much of it in digital form. This article could not have been written if this lowly freelancer didn’t have access to the information superhighway. I am a freelancer using modern tools which have been simplified over the years to research the word freelance, which has itself been simplified over time. It’s all so meta.
So, back to P.G. Wodehouse and his earnest optimism. By the time he referenced a character who was living happily as a freelance writer in the 1930s, freelancing was a fairly common idea. But Wodehouse hit on something interesting. Freelancing makes people happy. According to the Deskmag Global Survey, it is clear that freelancers are generally happier and feel better about their career than traditional workers, but why should that be? Perhaps we can find a clue in the root words themselves, as they might shed some light on the idea behind freelancing and the elementary concept of self-fulfillment.
It turns out that word free comes from a root word of Germanic origin, meaning to love. And lance is related to the old French word for launch, meaning to hurl, throw or discharge with force. Beautiful, right? And not just for people who love to throw things. It’s especially helpful because this concept can be interpreted in one of two ways. Freelancers may be happy because they are hurling themselves at what they love to do, discharging the force of their creativity into their work. Or they may be happy because they are creating work with love before hurling it into the world for the rest of us to utilize and appreciate. Whatever the interpretation, freelancers are essentially given permission to be happy at work, from the very word itself, freelance.
As a freelancer myself, I have gained a few important take-aways from these explanations of the term. While the word freelance first rose to prominence as a way to describe mercenary soldiers, it is not a new concept. Throughout history workers have sold their availability and skill for a purpose, and there is something fundamentally comforting in the idea that nothing is entirely new. The philosophical challenges we face as humans and workers in today’s world are similar to those of our ancestors, even if we are separated by hundreds of years. The tools may have changed, but we are stilling fighting the good fight, selling our work for the promise of pride and a sense of fulfillment in our lives.
It’s a difficult road to take and it can certainly wear a person down but when all else fails, remember the root words. Your work and your weapon. Hurl yourself at the things you love. Your passion will be reflected in your creations and in the quality of your happiness.
A version of this article originally appeared at Deskmag.com.