One of the terms that I wrote about in Literally, the Best Language Book Ever was our use of -friendly. We use the same construction, pairing a word with -friendly, in ways that are inconsistent, which leads to understandable confusion. For example, user-friendly means that something is easy to use, child-friendly means that it’s safe for the child to be around, and carb-friendly means that a food is conducive to a low-carbohydrate diet. Since trendiness encourages us to slap a -friendly on any word we’d like, it might be nice if it always meant the same thing.
We do the same thing with -free. Typically, when we use this construction, which isn’t terribly articulate to begin with, it is done with -free meaning that we’re free of whatever it is we’re referring to. For instance, a germ-free environment is one without germs, and a carb-free food is one loaded with fat, I mean without (free of) carbs. A child-free zone is one where children are not permitted. Well, you get the idea.
That brings me to the oft-used (and oft-annoying) term hands-free, such as a hands-free phone. Logically, it would mean a phone without (free of) hands, which isn’t all that revolutionary. I’ve seen plenty of phones in my 40+ years, and other than the odd Mickey Mouse phone, I can’t recall any with hands.
What hands-free seems to mean in trendy 21st century America is a phone that you don’t need your hands for in order to operate. That’s a completely different meaning than all of the other -free words, which makes me wonder if I should go back in time and go to my mom and say Look mom, hands free when riding my bike down the street.