What is the history behind the word "free" that made it necessary for the clarification "free as in free speech, not free beer"?

In the context such as "free press", it means libre from censorship, "gluten-free" means libre from gluten and so on.

Then there is "free stuff", why is the same word used? Does it imply libre from cost or was this meaning given in another way?

  • 2
    Besides the etymology?
    – Davo
    Mar 3, 2017 at 18:02
  • 8
    What's the mystery here? Free means unencumbered. By the need for payment, by the burden of incarceration, by state regulation, by the presence of gluten, etc. Free your mind.
    – deadrat
    Mar 3, 2017 at 18:06
  • 2
    @deadrat There was some mystery to it, and you cleared it up quite effectively. You should understand that the asker does not seem to be a native speaker and was merely interested in knowing how a single word in English could have two apparently so different meanings (and translations) in Spanish.
    – Gustavson
    Mar 3, 2017 at 19:23
  • Please include the research you've done,. Questions that can be answered using commonly-available references are off-topic. Etymon has 'Sense of "given without cost" is 1580s, from notion of "free of cost." '. Mar 3, 2017 at 20:23
  • @Gustavson I stand properly chastised. It is wise to remember that native speakers find comparatively easy some linguistic tasks like this one, i.e, finding the non-empty semantic intersection of the various usages of a word. Others, also probably including other fluent speakers, not so much. SK, sorry: I shouldn't have started my comment with a question that could sound dismissive. Sufficient would have been a declaration, perhaps one not worded absolutely.
    – deadrat
    Mar 3, 2017 at 22:57

1 Answer 1


'Free' absolutely means 'free from any sorts constraints or controls. The context determines its different denotations, if any, as in 'free press', 'fee speech', 'free stuff' etc.

Free (adj.) Old English freo "free, exempt from, not in bondage, acting of one's own will," also "noble; joyful," from Proto-Germanic *frija- "beloved; not in bondage" (source also of Old Frisian fri, Old Saxon vri, Old High German vri, German frei, Dutch vrij, Gothic freis "free"), from PIE *priy-a- "dear, beloved," from root *pri- "to love" (source also of Sanskrit priyah "own, dear, beloved," priyate "loves;" Old Church Slavonic prijati "to help," prijatelji "friend;" Welsh rhydd "free").

Meaning "clear of obstruction" is from mid-13c.; sense of "unrestrained in movement" is from c. 1300; of animals, "loose, at liberty, wild," late 14c. Meaning "liberal, not parsimonious" is from c. 1300. Sense of "characterized by liberty of action or expression" is from 1630s; of art, etc., "not holding strictly to rule or form," from 1813. Of nations, "not subject to foreign rule or to despotism," recorded in English from late 14c. (Free world "non-communist nations" attested from 1950 on notion of "based on principles of civil liberty.") Sense of "given without cost" is 1580s, from notion of "free of cost."


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