Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Free on the Fourth


It’s the 4th of July, so let’s cover a few appropriate words, starting with freedom. Apropos of the holiday, the meaning that springs to mind is “exemption from arbitrary, despotic, or autocratic control; independence; civil liberty.”

The free- part of this word goes back to an Old English and Germanic sense. As opposed to a slave or servant, a free member of a household was related by kinship to the head of the household. Related words in various languages included endearment, love, and friend. The -dom suffix signified a state or condition. So it’s a homely and relatively uncomplicated word.

The word liberty tracks back to the Latin adjective liber, free, so we can see why freedom and liberty are considered such tight synonyms. Of the two, freedom is the more general and wide-ranging. Liberty focuses a bit more narrowly on the power to choose. (Complicating things, there was an unconnected Latin noun, liber, that meant either the bark of a tree or a book, since bark was an early writing material.)

Finally, there is independence, which Americans celebrate on this day. Originally, something dependent was hanging down, pendent, like a wasp's nest. This developed into the concept of having one’s existence contingent on someone or something else--in other words, being subordinate. The -in prefix happens to be the negative version, so something independent is not contingent on another; it is free.


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