The Rise and Fall of the Free Lance

Originally coined as a term to describe mercenary soldiers, the phrase “free lance” has come a long way in the past 200 years. Sir Walter Scott, originator of the term, first wrote it in the book Ivanhoe in 1820:

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.

In its first usage, Scott used the phrase as a proper noun, literally naming his soldiers for hire “Free Lances”. A “free lance” very quickly became used synonymously with “mercenary,” and while the meaning stuck for a good 40 years, by the 1860s the usage became purely figurative. By the end of the 19th century a freelance was a person who “acts independently without being affiliated with, or authorized by, an organization.” No longer about medieval mercenary soldiers, “freelance” evolved to carry a meaning that hinted at intrigue and excitement.

At the turn of the 20th century, freelance was officially recognized as a verb by the Oxford English Dictionary. “Freelancing,” as defined by Oxford, is “earn[ing] one’s living as a freelance”. While still evoking images of espionage and danger, it wasn’t until more modern times that “freelance” took on a more mundane meaning.

Used more recently as an adjective, the phrase “free lance” seems to only conjure up images of writers, programmers, and artists with serious caffeine addictions and thick-rimmed glasses. Though no longer hardened mercenaries, freelancers are still individuals who earn a living by acting independently without authorization from any organization, and as Sir Walter Scott said, “a man of action will always find employment.”

Written by Zachary Flower on 07 July 2016