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Freelance

Q From Steve Dyson, Lisbon: A Web site says: “Freelancers can trace their job title back to Sir Walter Scott, who introduced the term in his 1819 novel, Ivanhoe. His free-lance characters were medieval mercenaries who pledged their loyalty (and weapons) to lords and kings, for a fee.” As a freelance translator my curiosity is aroused. Is this etymological story correct? Perhaps it could provide an entry point for one of your excellent articles.

A We are so used to being told that freelance did indeed derive from medieval mercenaries in just this way that the story brings one up short disbelievingly. But it’s correct. The word is not recorded before Sir Walter Scott introduced it in that book.

This is its first appearance:

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.

Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott, 1819. Free, of course, means “unbound”, not “without cost”.

It’s one mark of the huge influence that Scott had in his lifetime. He has quite gone out of fashion these days but in his time he was a famous and widely read writer (Henry James later remarked that Scott had made the nineteenth-century English novel possible). He also invented the historical novel, of which Ivanhoe is a classic example.

He’s credited with either popularising or inventing many words and phrases, to the extent that he’s marked as the first user of more than 700 in the Oxford English Dictionary and he lies third behind the Bible and Shakespeare in innovation in that work. He’s recorded as the first user of, to take a few terms at random, blood is thicker than water, Calvinistic, clansmen, cold shoulder, deferential, flat (meaning an apartment), Glaswegian, jeroboam, lady-love, lock, stock and barrel, otter hunt, Norseman, roisterer, Scotswoman (in place of the older Scotchwoman), sick-nurse, sporran, weather-stain and wolf-hound. He also introduced his readers to many obscure old terms, especially from the Scots language and from chivalry.

There was a slightly earlier term, free companion, which appeared in 1804 in a translation of the fourteenth-century chronicles of the French historian Jean Froissart about the Hundred Years War. This was based on the much older free company, which is recorded from 1676 in English and is probably even older in French (as compagnie franche). Scott uses this, too, in the same book:

A knight who rode near him, the leader of a band of free companions, or Condottieri, that is, of mercenaries belonging to no particular nation, but attached for the time to any prince by whom they were paid.

Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott, 1819.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 29 Aug. 2009

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 29 August 2009.