In Chris Anderson’s new book Free: The Future of a Radical Price, he looks into the meaning of the word free. The word has two meanings: free as in “freedom” and free as in “price.” Most of the romance languages divide these meanings into two different words, derived from liber and gratiis. Our double-duty English word comes from Old English freon or freogan, meaning “to free, love.” In addition to free, this word also gave us our word friend. Anderson quotes etymologist Douglas Harper:
The primary sense seems to have been “beloved, friend”; which in some languages (notably Germanic and Celtic) developed a sense of “free,” perhaps from the terms “beloved” or “friend” being applied to the free members of one’s clan (as opposed to slaves). (P. 18)
This double-meaning of beloved and free made friend the perfect word for the early translators of the English bible when they got to John 15, where Jesus says:
Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what
his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I
have heard of my Father I have made known unto you. Ye have not
chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go
and bring forth fruit, and [that] your fruit should remain: that
whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you. These things I command you, that ye love one another.
This was a favorite verse of a bunch of spiritual trouble-makers in England in mid-1600s, who liked it so much they started calling one another Friends. They were a new brother- and sister-hood of beloveds, newly freed of the tyrants of their age by their personal experience of Christ as friend, spreading the good news that we were all free and all commanded to love one another.