Freedom is a wonderful example of a word that is simple and direct, but hides an interesting root meaning. It is made up of two halves, free– meaning “the ability to act in a self-directed manner” and –dom which is a suffix that indicates a general state of being. Freedom has strong cognates in languages closely related to English, such as German, Dutch and the Scandinavian tongues:
- Freiheit (German)
- Vrijheid (Dutch)
- Frihet (Norwegian and Swedish)
- Frihed (Danish)
- Frelsi (Icelandic)
The interesting part of freedom is the first part, free-. In looking at the word and the list of cognates above, there is a very clear pattern of f+r+ei/i/e at play. These vowels are known in phonetics as “front vowels” since the tongue is in the front of the mouth when one makes their sounds. This pattern is also found in words from these same languages such as friend (Freund in German) and the Norse gods Frey, Freya and Frigg, all of which have connections to fertility and love.
I started tracing the f+r+front vowel root back within the Germanic languages and found that the pattern goes all the way back to the reconstructed Proto-Germanic *friaz and Proto-Indo European root *pri-, which both mean “love.” This is the same root from which the Sanskrit word प्रिय (priya), which means “dear” or “beloved,” comes and is the source of the modern name Priyanka.
The interesting question here is how a word connected to the concept of love came to be defined as a lack of restriction. The best explanation I have seen for this is that the word meaning “love” came also to mean “not in bondage” because it was applied to members of one’s family in societies that practiced slavery. In other words, one’s household might contain two types of people, family and friends (those who are free) and slaves (those who are unfree).
This sense of duality seems to hang around freedom, which is often posited as being one half of a pair, with the other side of the coin being responsibility. This is expressed succinctly in the famous line by Eleanor Roosevelt that, “With freedom comes responsibility,” and, more poetically, by the 20th century rocket scientist and occultist Jack Parsons in the title of his essay, Freedom Is A Two-Edged Sword.
This sense of freedom being paired with responsibility ties in nicely with the other themes of love and a lack of restriction. It seems that freedom might be defined as the state of being loved, unrestricted and responsible for oneself. It does not exist on its own, like a chair or a book, but in opposition to its antithesis: indifference, restriction and dependence.