In The Original Usage, “Freelancers” Were?
Today, we use the term “freelancer” to refer to an individual who works on their own terms and completes contract work or per-piece work for a variety of organizations instead of working for an hourly or salaried wage for a single employer. A travel writer who submits articles to Travel + Leisure, AFAR, Outside, and the New York Times, but is not a staff member of any of those particular publications, is performing freelance work. The same meaning carries across multiple industries with a strong focus on freelancing in creative industries like writing, graphic design, and so on.
The original freelancers weren’t artists, however, but mercenaries. The term came into use in the early 1800s to refer to medieval mercenaries—literally “free lances”, or soldiers free of commitment to a particular country that worked for whoever offered the best pay. The first written example of the phrase “free lances” appears in the 1819-1820 novel Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. After that appearance, the term not only grew in rapid use as a reference to mercenaries, but also took on new meanings.
In the 1800s, it wouldn’t be unusual to refer to an unaffiliated politician or an independent worker as a “freelancer”. Over time, the term changed slightly in that the political connotation was dropped and the word now functions both as a noun (someone can be a freelancer) and a verb (you can freelance).
Image by Dan Koehl/Wikimedia.