The History Of Freelancing & Surprising Origins Of The Word

Historical photo of the pyramids and Sphinx in Egypt with graphics of freelancers added.

The history of freelancing has its roots in something very different to modern associations with the word. The evolution of the internet has had a major impact on the increase of freelancers and remote workers from all over the world. But freelancing existed long before the internet.

In this article, I’ll explore the history of freelancing, taking a look at the meaning of the word, its origins, and how it evolved into the career path that it is today.

The Surprising Origins Of The Word ‘Freelancing’

The first recorded appearance of the word ‘freelance’ in literature is attributed to a few different books. The Life and Times of Hugh Miller by Thomas N. Brown is one, which according to the Internet Archive was written in 1809 (but I have seen other sources put the publish date in the 1850s).

He uses the term in reference to medieval mercenary soldiers who offered their services to whoever paid the most. This was a very common ‘job’ during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance period. As long as the interested person had the money (you could call them the ‘client’) the freelancer would offer their services in securing land or protecting properties.

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott, written in 1819, also mentions the “service of my Free Lances.” In this case, he’s talking about lances that are not, to quote Wikipedia, “sworn to any lord’s services, not that the lance is available free of charge.” So, again, very different to how we use the word freelancing today!

The Etymology Of The Word Freelance

You can divide ‘Freelancing’ into two words. ‘Free’ has a Germanic origin and means to love, and ‘Lance’ comes from French and means to throw or hurl with force. Putting these two words together leaves you with a literal definition of throwing love!

For many, freelancing means being able to create a business out of something that they love. Something that they ‘throw’ at potential clients. So, looking at it from this perspective, it makes total sense! Freelancing is throwing the skills you love at your clients!

Okay, that’s a bit too literal, but you get the idea. The word has been around since the 1860s in roughly this form, and in 1903 it as added to the Oxford English Dictionary. It has since become a common word in the world of employment, and it means something very different to its original uses!

Freelancing Today

There is no need for mercenaries now, so freelancing work has evolved according to the needs of society. It became a way in which people would help local businesses with odd jobs that increased sales, mostly on a local basis. Getting new clients depended solely on recommendations and required a lot of networking.

Freelancing And The Internet

The appearance and development of the internet changed the world of freelancing for good. By removing barriers like distance, for example, people can now offer whatever services or skills they have to anyone who is interested, no matter who or where they are.

The internet is effectively everywhere, and almost everyone has access to it at the tip of their fingers. This accessibility has increased the number of freelancers and opportunities for freelancing over the years. Pretty much anyone can become a freelancer should they choose to do so!

Now, the word freelancer is typically used to refer to any self-employed individual who operates as a solo service provider, generally working on short-term projects with many different clients.

Freelancing Statistics

Freelancing has become a very popular career choice over the years. Let’s take a look at some facts, stats, and trends about the freelancing industry:

  • There are currently 57 million freelancers in the USA alone. Experts predict this number will surpass 90 million by 2028.
  • Covid-19 caused a major increase in the number of freelance workers. An estimate of more than 2 million workers started freelancing since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020.
  • About 51% of freelancers say they wouldn’t switch to a traditional job no matter how much money they were paid (I’m sure there are limits to this!).
  • Freelance writers earn an average of $15-$80 per hour on freelance platforms like Upwork and Fiverr.

What About The Future Of Freelancing?

Freelancing is a thriving industry today. Freelancing is much more attractive than many 9-5 jobs because it gives you the freedom to choose what you do and when you do it. It also allows you to earn money doing something you love.

Freelance work has evolved with time, from mercenary work to selling any kind of skill on the internet. But the meaning of the word remains the same. You help other people by doing something that you love.

But the future of freelancing is likely one that will rely heavily on your ability to work alongside automation tools and lots of data. With advancements in artificial intelligence and the ability to work with large data sources rapidly, the freelancers of the future will be more efficient, and likely be able to produce a higher quality of work in less time—if they have the right skills!

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