Word Connections: Freedom & Constraint

In English, the word “free” has two primary meanings that are really quite distinct — although we often don’t notice the distinction. Most often, when we hear the word “free”, we think of the meaning “not costing anything”. We think of phrases like “Buy one, get one free!” or “Free food at the open house!” Or we will use the expression “There is no free lunch.” But there is another important meaning of “free” — related to the word “freedom” — and that is “without constraints”. This meaning appears in phrases such as “free speech”, “free flowing”, “free verse”, and “free thinking”. To translate the word “free” to another language, you have to know which meaning of “free” you intend to communicate.

The word “free” traces back to the Old English word frēo. As a verb, meaning “to free”, the Old English word was frēon. The modern English word “friend” traces back to the nearly identical Old English word frēond. The similarity is not a coincidence. The Old English words frēo, frēon, and frēond all derive from a slightly older word that meant “to love”. (To quote the song from Sting: “If you love someone, set them free!”) The Old English word for “freedom” was frēodōm, quite similar to the modern word.

If you use “free” to mean “not costing anything”, then the equivalent Spanish word is gratis. The word gratis has been absorbed into most of the languages of Western Europe. In addition to Spanish, you can use the word gratis to mean “not costing anything” in German, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Italian, and Portuguese. The word has long been adopted into English, as in “He lends out money gratis” — a quote from Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice”. A very similar word — gratuit — is used in French.

The word “gratis” is from the Latin grātīs, a contraction of the word grātiīs. The word referred to doing something without compensation, usually as a favor or out of kindness. The word is closely related to the Latin word grātus, which meant thankful or pleasing. The English word “grateful” comes from grātus, and our word still means “thankful”. The English word “gratuity” also traces back to the same Latin origin. But if your restaurant bill says “An 18% gratuity has been added”, then you will probably pay the 18% even if you are not feeling particularly grateful about the level of service you received.

Several other words from the same Latin root can also be found in English. “Gratitude” is a state of being thankful, while an “ingrate” is a person who is not thankful even though he should be. To “gratify” is to give pleasure or satisfaction, and “gratification” is the state of being pleased or satisfied. The original meaning of “gratuitous” was “freely given or obtained” — but now we often use the word to mean “unwarranted” or “unjustified”, as in “gratuitous praise”. (Apparently this praise was given a little bit too freely.)

When we use the word “free” to mean “without constraints”, then we need a different set of translations. In this case the Spanish and French translations are both libre. The Portuguese word is livre, and the Italian word is libero. All of these are derived from the Latin word liber, which likewise meant “free”. As in English, the Spanish word can be applied in various distinct settings. However, unlike English, the word never means “not costing anything”. For example, if a taxicab in Latin America is libre, it means that the cab is currently available for hire — but there will certainly be a charge for using it.

The English word “liberty”, a synonym for “freedom”, is also derived from the Latin liber. The word entered English from the Old French liberte, which came from the Latin lībertās (freedom), which in turn came from liber (free). The modern French word for liberty is liberté, part of the famous French national motto: Liberté, egalité, fraternité (liberty, equality, brotherhood). The Spanish word for liberty or freedom is libertad, and the Italian word is libertà.

The English word “liberal” is also derived from the Latin liber. The word entered English from the Old French liberal, which came from the Latin līberālis, which meant “befitting free men”. In English the word originally meant “free from constraint”. Now the word can be applied in various contexts with slightly different meanings: liberal arts, a liberal supply, a liberal donation, a liberal thinker, a liberal policy. There are several countries where one of the main political parties is named the Liberal party. In Australia, the conservative party is the one named the Liberal party. In Colombia, signs entreating the population to vote for the Liberal party say “Vote Liberal” — which looks like English, but is actually Spanish.

We have several other words in the English whose roots trace back to the Latin liber. On a different place in the political spectrum than “liberals”, there are also “libertarians”. We use the word “liberate” to mean “to set free”. We can also use the concept of “without constraints” in a negative light. And so we have the word “libertine”, which means a person without moral constraints.

In the Germanic and Scandinavian languages, which have a shared origin with Old English, the word for “free” is very similar to the English word. It is frei in German, vrij in Dutch, and fri in Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian. In each case, you can turn the word into a noun that means “freedom” or “liberty” by adding an appropriate ending. Therefore you have Freiheit in German, vrijheid in Dutch, frihed in Danish, and frihet in both Swedish and Norwegian.

Now suppose you wanted to choose the most appropriate word to mean the opposite of “free”. If you think of “free” as meaning “no cost”, then you might say that the opposite is “expensive”. But the best opposite for “expensive” would be “cheap”. Therefore the opposite of “free” is “costing something”. If you think of “free” in the sense of “freedom”, then you might say that the opposite of “free” is “imprisoned”. It is certainly true that the opposite of an imprisoned man is a free man. But if you consider phrases such as “free flowing”, “free verse”, “free time”, and “free thinking”, then “imprisoned” is not the best opposite. Instead, “free” in all of these cases means “unconstrained” or “unrestricted”. And therefore the best opposite for “free” is “constrained” or “restricted”. Likewise the opposite of “freedom” is “constraint” or “restriction”. If you cannot act with complete freedom, then you are limited by constraints or restrictions.

The verbs “constrain”, “constrict”, “restrain”, and “restrict” — which all have related meanings — all share a common origin. “Constrain” and “constrict” come from the Latin constringere. “Restrain” and “restrict” come from the Latin restringere. The Latin word stringere means to pull tightly. The prefix “con-” means “together”, while the prefix “re-” means “back”. Therefore “constrain” and “constrict” both literally mean “pull tightly together”, while “restrain” and “restrict” both literally mean “pull back firmly”.

So how did the Latin root stringere become two different English roots — “strain” and “strict”? In Latin, as in other languages, a word can have many small variations, depending upon the grammatical role of the word. For example, the English word “eat” can take the form of “ate”, “eating”, “eaten”, and so on. In this case “eaten” is called the “past participle” of the verb “to eat”. In Latin, the past participle of constringere is constrictus, and the past participle of restringere is restrictus. The upshot is that two distinct forms of each of these two words eventually entered into English.

The Latin word stringere (again meaning “to pull tightly”) also made its way into English without any prefixes. And again, two different forms of the word entered into English and became separate words — “strain” and “strict”. In modern English, these two words don’t appear to be closely related, and the meanings seem quite different. But it actually makes sense. If something is being pulled tightly, then it is likely to experience a strain. And if someone is quite strict towards you, then that person is restricting your options — in essence, that person is pulling the reins tightly.

Finally, there is still a third word in English derived from stringere — the word “stress”. This word has a meaning quite similar to “strain”. This word also can be used with a prefix, and therefore we have the word “distress”, derived from the Latin distringere. The prefix “dis-” means “apart”, so to be “distressed” literally means to be pulled apart. Once again we have a second English word from the same Latin source — the word “district” also comes from distringere. Now this seems strange; there does not appear to be any obvious connection between “distress” and “district”. But to create a district, you must draw lines to divide a geographic area into distinct parts. And therefore you really are pulling the geographic area apart.

And with that mind-bending conclusion, we will now wrap up our exploration into the fascinating linguistic connections associated with the words “freedom” and “constraint”. But rest assured that another episode of Word Connections will soon appear!

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