The linguistic advantages of freeing your lance

A few months ago my then 3-year-old daughter, Billie, told me that when she and Sam (my 7-year-old son) grow up, he is going to be “a daddy who goes to work” while she will stay home with me and “do what mommies do”.

I was gutted. At the time I was working from home as an editor, columnist, proofreader and plain language practitioner. (I am, in the words of The Media Online’s editor, a slasher.) And yet my daughter only noticed the ‘from home’ bit.

She got me thinking about the differences between employment (going to work, in her mind) and self-employment or freelancing.

To be employed or not to be employed, that is the question

The verb ‘employ’ has two principal meanings,

  1. give work to (someone) and pay them for it
  2. make use of.

(Oxford Dictionaries online)

I find the proximity between these two meanings quite sobering. Employers give work to their employees while at the same time using them to fulfil their own aims. Personnel departments now fall under Human Resource Management, which is a fancy way of saying ‘getting people to do what we want them to do’. (or Ve haf vays… )

I can’t shake the sinister inference of a resource (the employee) being used by someone (the employer) to further their own aims.  This may account for the draconian labour laws in this country: the potential for abuse is buried deep in the words we use to describe the relationship.

Afrikaans has a neat solution to this issue. The one who pays another to do work is called the werkgewer (work giver) and the one who is paid for the work is called the werknemer (work taker). I like the simplicity of these words that describe the relationship in a more neutral way.

On the flip side, if you are self-employed, according to Oxford Dictionaries online you work for yourself or own your own business. As a lawyer, I find this definition problematic because often if you own a business which you work in then you are employed, albeit by your own business. If your business is set up as a legal entity separate from you, you are employed by that entity. You wear two separate legal hats – owner and employee.

Working for yourself, on the other hand, entails earning a living out of providing your skills to different clients.

How free is a freelancer?

In my early post-employment days I used to tell people I was self-employed. That left me feeling slightly uncomfortable even before my linguistic dissection of these terms. Today, as a proud member of SAFREA, the South African Freelance Association, I am a freelancer.

Collins Dictionary online defines the noun freelance (also called freelancer) as

  1. a self-employed person, esp a writer or artist, who is not employed continuously but hired to do specific assignments, (as modifier) ⇒ a freelance journalist
  2. a person, esp a politician, who supports several causes or parties without total commitment to any one
  3. (in medieval Europe) a mercenary soldier or adventurer

It is interesting (well, to me anyway) to note that my slightly tatty Collins Dictionary and Thesaurus (Paperback) Second Edition 2002 defines freelance as “a self-employed person doing specific pieces of work for various employers.” The updated version I quoted above removes the apparent tension between “self-employed” and “for various employers”; after all, inherent in the notion of self-employment is the absence of an employer. (Hence my unease at the definition including working for a business you own.)

The term ‘freelance’ dates back to Sir Walter Scott who coined the phrase (it was originally two words) to refer to mercenary soldiers. These men were free to use their skills with lances for any person who hired them.

Some clients may be surprised to learn that the ‘free’ in freelance does not mean absence of payment. ‘Free’ in this sense means that the freelance can decide freely and is not under the control of another person.

I recently read a brave and honest post on Living Lionheart blog by Stacey Vee. In ‘Why I can’t write for free’ she explains that she is a “bread-and-butter freelance writer” rather than one who writes in their spare time. I urge you all to read it.

I have just taken up a desk in a delightful communal office in Woodstock. The first person I took to see my new space was Billie. So now, when she asks where I’m going, I tell her I’m going to work. Like Daddy.