The Grammarphobia Blog

A free for all

Q: I appreciate this forum and the opportunity it offers to comment and question freely. Speaking of which, when did “for free” begin to replace just “free” in a financial sense?

A: The word “free” (the adjective as well as the adverb) is quite old, dating from Anglo-Saxon days, when it referred to not being enslaved or restricted in other ways. It wasn’t until the early 17th century that it took on the meaning of without charge or payment.

One of the earliest published references, from around 1631, is in a poem by John Donne: “Love is not love, but given free; / And so is mine; so should yours be.”

Most of the early uses of “free” in a financial sense are in the phrase “free gratis,” as in this 1682 citation, via the Oxford English Dictionary, from the Liverpool municipal records: “Hee was admitted free gratis.”

The first OED citation for “free” used by itself in this sense is from an 1872 ad in the Dubuque (Iowa) Herald for Kress Fever Tonic: “Box of pills free with every bottle.”

The earliest published references in the dictionary for the phrase “for free” used instead of plain old “free” date from the late 1930s and early ’40s.

A 1943 article in the journal American Speech speculates about the origin of this new and expanded expression: “It might be reasonable to assume that for free results from the confusion of free and for nothing.”

From the OED citations, it appears that the phrase “for free” has been well-established among English speakers since the 1950s.

Here’s a colorful example from a 1957 article in the Chronicle-Telegram of Elyria, Ohio: “He … aroused the anger of Miss Hayworth’s movie boss who felt that chopping the skull off a $6,000-a-week star for free was pushing things a little.”

And here’s one from Kingsley Amis’s novel I Like It Here (1958): “Bowen tried to buy some drinks, conscious of having been fed and made drunk for free.”

The old expression “free gratis” is still popular too. I got more than 1.5 million hits when I googled it, though a surprisingly large number were for software downloads and sexual-enhancement drugs.

I see nothing wrong with using either “for free” or “free gratis” for emphasis when “free” alone doesn’t seem to have enough oomph. If emphatic redundancy is a sin, I’m a sinner.

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