Origins of the English Language: where did the words ‘ business’, ‘writer’ and ‘freelance’ originate?

Finding out the original meaning and origin or etymology of common words is fascinating if you enjoy playing around with language. The language we know as English has developed and evolved over centuries, taking into account the languages and words of immigrants and conquerors until it became the language it is today. It is still evolving and new words are added to the dictionary every year.

Origin of ‘Business’

The word ‘business’ is thought to have originated from the Old English word bisignes, from Northumbria. The original meanings of the word included anxiety or care as well as occupation. From this word was also bisig, which was the adjective: anxious, careful, occupied, busy and diligent. The word became busy-ness or busyness in the mid-14th century, losing two of the meanings (anxiety, care) and retaining ‘being much occupied’. Johnson’s dictionary also includes busiless, which carries the meaning: at leisure, being without business.

The word being used for a person’s livelihood or occupation was first written in the late 14th century (bisig) as a noun with the sense of occupation, employment. It was also used as something ‘undertaken as a sense of duty’. In the 17th century, the word could also be used to describe sexual intercourse. In 1727, the word is first found to mean ‘commercial engagements or trade’.

Origin of ‘Write’

From the Old English writan which had the sense of ‘to score (mark), outline or draw the figure of’. Similar words were also found in Old Saxon (writan – to tear, scratch, write), Old Norse (rita – scratch, outline, write) and the Old High German (rizan – to tear, scratch, write).

Most of the European languages had their word for ‘write’ originally mean ‘scratch, carve, cut’, most likely as this was the most common form of writing at the time.

Origin of ‘Freelance’

The first written example of ‘freelance’ was written by Sir Walter Scott in his novel, Ivanhoe (1819). A feudal lord refers to the army that he has assembled as ‘free lances’ – literally free weapons. The army are at the disposal of his lord, but they are refused. The word became popular and found other meanings, including a politician who had no affiliation with a particular political party or to refer to a person who worked on their own terms without long term commitment to a single employer.  Our current noun, ‘freelancer’ is quite a late addition, so freelance was used as noun and verb. Throughout medieval history, the existence of free lances was well-documented. Hired soldiers were common for major military campaigns between the 12-14th centuries. At the time, however, rather than being referred to as ‘free lances’, such soldiers were known as ‘stipendaries’ (they were given a stipend for their work) or mercenaries.

Which words would you like to know the origin of? Comment below.

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