Lances at the ready!


There is a day celebrating just about everything under the sun, and today happens to be National Freelance Day.

According to the FT, last November, one in 20 workers in the UK, or 1.56 million people, works freelance. That number has probably gone up since then, as the financial crisis drags on.

As a freelancer, my way of celebrating is to celebrate the word itself.

It is a romantic word

It’s a metaphor, but one which is completely dead, killed off by the word being used in its modern meaning for well over century.

For the ‘lance’ in freelance is that gruesome weapon wielded by mounted medieval knights and used to spear or unsaddle their enemies.

(The famous battle on the ice in Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky captures the awe and terror such knights must have inspired.)

Free lances were mercenary knights who would fight on any side, and were mainly interested in plunder. (Nowadays they might be known less charitably as lancetarts).


The first use of the word that we know of is by Sir Walter Scott, in his novel of chivalric derring-do, Ivanhoe. ‘I offered Richard the service of my Free Lances’ (two words, and capitalized). WS_Ivanhoe

And the first use of it in something approaching our modern sense, but with the metaphor still being made explicit, as if to explain the word, is from Hansard in 1854:

I think I may call that portion of the Government political ‘free lances’. In the course of the last four years they have been ready to enlist under any banner—to wear any uniform.

Does it have a hyphen?

In the Oxford English Corpus it is overwhelmingly written as one word, which is modern practice, and how Oxford dictionaries, including the OED, spell it.

The form ‘freelance’ as a noun is also about five times more common than ‘freelancer’.


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A versatile word

Just as the original free lances attached themselves to any cause, so the word ‘freelance’ attaches itself to different parts of speech. Not content with being a noun, it is also:

  • An adjective – a freelance consultant;
  • An adverb – to write freelance; and
  • A verb – she freelances for different publishers.

Luckily, no pundits that I know of have castigated its being used as a verb, unlike, say, interface and scores of others.

Freelancing in other languages

A quick check in French, Spanish, Italian, German and Russian dictionaries suggests that the image of a gallant knight has not carried over to those languages. The idea is conveyed by phrases meaning ‘to work for yourself’, ‘be independent’ and so on. But in French there’s an adverbial phrase – travailler en free-lance – and in Italian it works as an adjective – un fotografo freelance.


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