Saturday, August 22, 2009


Michael Quinion is a freelance etymologist, whose entertaining and learned e-mail newsletter on word origins and word usage I've read for years. I hope he won't mind this extensive quotation from this week's issue:

Q. 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. [Steve Dyson, Lisbon]

A. We are so used to being told that "freelance" did 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

He's credited with either popularising or inventing many words and
phrases, to the extent that he is 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, Calvinistic,
blood is thicker than water, clansmen, cold shoulder, deferential,
flat (meaning an apartment), Glaswegian, jeroboam, lady-love, lock,
stock and barrel, Norseman, otter hunt, 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.
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.]
Start looking into chivalry, at least if you are an Anglophone, and you can hardly avoid the man.

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