If by any chance you glance and I’m doing a happy dance, as if without forbearance to prance over some fine romance or good riddance, do not look askance; pardon the inelegance, for I am, in the parlance, going freelance.
Well, that’s not quite true, I’m not going: I’ve done paid freelance work for nearly 20 years now – designing books and magazines and ads, writing articles, and editing various items, and occasionally photographing events – but I’ve spent my days earning salary at the same desk for the same company, and the freelance work has been extras I have fit in on my evenings and weekends. Now I am about to make freelancing my primary source of income. I am getting my hustle on and I have set up my freelance business website, jamesharbeck.com (also accessible at jamesharbeck.ca).
OK, fine, but what is this word freelance? We talk about people who work on contract from job to job with various companies as freelancers, but what are they lancing? And shouldn’t it be paid-lancing? I mean, figuratively, freelancers are guns for hire.
Guns? Lances, right? Sure, the idea is that your lance is available to whoever paid for it. You know, medieval mercenary soldiery. The term dates back all the way to… um, 1819, when Walter Scott used it in Ivanhoe: “I offered Richard the service of my Free Lances.” A slightly older term (not by all that much) is free companion (which has altogether different connotations today). Yes, knights for hire did exist, but we don’t have any earlier instance of their being called free lances.
You may also have noticed that free lance started as a noun, referring to the soldier metonymically. I could say I am a free lance (which, come to think of it, sounds like the same sort of thing as a loose cannon). But then from free lance came freelancing, and by implication (and eventual use) all the other forms of the verb freelance, and from that the noun freelancer was formed because freelance had come to be used just as an adjective and the original noun form had passed out of style (no doubt at least in part because of its closing up to freelance).
A freelancer is free, of course, just as in the sense of ‘at liberty’: not in the committed pay of anyone. Not in the fur-lined handcuffs of a salaried desk job. Some people who are supposedly freelancers are really contract workers with one contract, working exactly the same as if they were on salary but without all of the benefits and protections – the same handcuffs but with less fur. But there are many people who truly are guns for hire.
Or should I say pens for hire. Or, hmm, really keyboards now. Writing and editing are the most common freelance careers, followed by designing and programming. (Somewhere in there, I’m sure, are also musicians.) About 7 in 10 freelancers are women. I can tell you that 9 in 10 freelance editors I know are women.
Freelance work has changed over the years. For one thing, medieval mercenaries got to pillage. Freelancers these days will be lucky even to get a free coffee as a perquisite. But, on the other hand, no one’s trying to hurt or kill you.