Stories

Where Did the Word ‘Freelance’ Come From?

By Alyssa Hertig November 5th, 2014

The freelancer uniform of pajamas and workout clothes may be a stereotype we’re all familiar with, but a few hundred years ago, freelancers dressed for work in far different attire: suits of armor.

“Freelancer” was once used to describe a “medieval mercenary warrior.” There’s a career ancestry to brag about. Or not. It probably depends on your personality.

Sir Walter Scott allegedly coined the term in his novel Ivanhoe, published in 1820. Set in the 12th century, the novel features jousting tournaments and a thriving nobility. Robin Hood also makes an appearance.

How exactly did the phrase pop up? Maurice de Bracy, captain of a gang of mercenaries called the Free Companions, said:

“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.”

Despite the waning popularity of privately drafting mercenaries in Europe, the word lived on. Around 1882, it dropped the deadly connotations to refer broadly to independent workers that, like putty, flexibly shift to meet the desires of different employers—especially journalists.

We can zoom out and trace the unusual etymology, but even as the word continues to adapt in a changing economy, the aura of flexibility and freedom has endured.

Note that the crux of the idea is the same. “Free,” in the sense of flexibility, still holds true; and while “lance” no longer applies to weaponry, we all have our own modern freelance tools of the trade—such as keyboards and cameras. Besides, for those of us who have been wronged by editors and clients, dreaming about wielding a lance to settle invoice disputes actually doesn’t sound like a bad idea.

Image by Clem Murray
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