The word “freelance” was invented in the early 1800s to describe unaffiliated knights or soldiers from centuries earlier. Medieval mercenaries weren’t attached to any particular lord, king, or queen. With their lances, swords, and battle-axes in hand, they would sign on to fight for whomever had the coin to pay them, for however short a time that coin lasted.
Those medieval mercenaries were “guns for hire” before there were guns. More accurately, they were free-agent “lances for hire,” or… wait for it… free lances.
The phrase “free lance” was first used in print to describe these ancient soldiers of fortune by Sir Walter Scott in Ivanhoe in 1819, but the practice has existed for much longer. And, of course, mercenary soldiers are still around today. For a thousand years, their reputation for bravery, savagery, and lack of loyalty has been the stuff of legend (probably not universally true, but perhaps carefully cultivated).
Somewhere along the line, writers and other short-term, contract professionals purloined the term for their own use (and edited it into a single word). Such freelancers wield pens now rather than lances, because everyone knows the (digital) pen is mightier than the… um… sharp, pointy-tipped thingy. Okay, the metaphor starts out great, but our advancing technology really messes with pithy proverbs.
The point is (pun intended), writers who do contract writing for clients now call themselves freelance writers. They work for clients who pay for their skills for a limited period of time. The freelance writers ride into the fray for their clients, pens at the ready, dedicating body and soul until the client’s coin (or contract) runs out. Then the writers are off to seek gold and glory elsewhere.
Of course, freelance writers tend to be a lot less bloody in their derring-do than their namesake ancestors. Crafting some enticing marketing copy for a restaurant’s website may have a little less thrill to it than, say, unseating an armor-clad enemy from a Clydesdale on a blood-soaked battlefield. And documenting the proper procedure for replacing the battery in a vacuum cleaner may not cause citizens to quaver in fear as the writer strolls by. But it does help pay for groceries.
Freelance writers make a difference in their own ways—some small, and some quite large. There may be less actual gore lying on the ground when they finish a job, but they’ve traded their hard-earned skills for some coin of the realm and helped in their client’s own victories.
Every time I mention to someone that I am a freelance writer, just for a moment, I imagine a lance in my hand, banners snapping in the wind, and a new king or queen that needs a victory that I can help secure. I am proud to be part of such a long and storied history.
And I’m happy I don’t have to wear—or polish—all that armor.