The word freelancing comes from the noun freelance. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was first documented in literature back in the 19th century. Walter Scott used the phrase “free lance” when describing a hired medieval knight:
I offered Richard the service of my Free Lances. (Scott, 1819)
The word freelance comes from the combination of two words: free, which means capable of acting at will without being under anyone’s control, and lance, which means the kind of medieval weapon having a wooden shaft and a pointed steel head. Therefore, freelancing can be translated literally as a free weapon. The possession of a lance seems like a skill, so the term may be characterized as free possession of some skill applicable for a work. This interpretation is much closer to the modern definition of this word.
Nowadays, freelancing is understood to mean short-term job, and a common synonym for this term is the word self-employed. Freelancer or freelancing person signs a work contract with a firm or organization to carry out a project or a series of projects for them. Moreover, he or she can co-operate with two or more companies at the same time. The most significant characteristic that distinguishes a freelancer from a full-time employee is the fact that the freelancer in most cases does not have a clear working day and regular working hours. However, at the same time, Maurizio Lazzarato describes freelancers as people who should be always available and prepared for a new assignment:
But this doesn’t mean that you stop getting the fireman’s calls – being able to do things last minute, that’s our added value as freelancer.
Google Books Ngram Viewer shows that the sharp popularization of the word freelancing began in 1969. The term freelancing was most often used for jobs that are related to writing skills, for example writers and journalists, researching or making art. Indeed, the word freelancing was used in the New York Times for the description of a musician:
A fictional (but believable), obscure trumpet player in the 1950’s named Gene, a freelancing soloist who worked with Woody Herman and Claude Thornhill (N.Y. Times, 1998)
However, with the development of information technology, new professions began to emerge and many of them refer to freelancing. Probably, this is why the peak of the use of the word, according to Google Books Ngram Viewer, falls in 2001. New jobs required changes in the standard frames, which included dependent work and fixed time schedule. These new jobs are usually related to programming, design and web design, PR and social media marketing. One example can be found in the book by L. Forbes. She used this word to describe the main character’s job:
Over the past seven years of freelancing I have augmented my radio producer’s wages by shooting videos… for late night television. (Forbes, 1998)
Richard Florida refers all of the above mentioned jobs to the concept of “creative class”. This concept includes precisely those professions that are associated with the creation of something significantly new. In addition, people who fall under the definition of the “creative class”, according to Florida, often work alone, distanced and using modern technology and they are rarely full-time employees (Florida, 2003). All these features also describe the concept of freelancing. Therefore, freelancing may be also considered as a part of the “creative class”.
In conclusion, freelancing can be practiced in many professions. This word does not describe the job itself, but actually the way of organizing the working time of a person and the type of relationship between a worker and his or her client companies.
Florida, Richard. Cities and the Creative Class. 2003
Forbes, Leslie. Bombay Ice. London, Phoenix, 1998.
The New York Times [New York]. 38/3 ed., 5 Apr. 1998.
Scott, Sir Walter. Ivanhoe. Vol. 3, London, A. Constable, Edinburgh Hurst, Robinson, 1819.