14 “Freestyle” Synonyms For Spur-Of-The-Moment Language

Some people just like to do things their own way—in other words, they freestyle it.

The term freestyle makes many of us think of the Olympic swimming event, and indeed, some of the earliest records of the word, which dates back to at least the early 1900s, were used in reference to swimming. In the original freestyle swimming competitions, the expression referred to the fact that swimmers could use any style, or any swim stroke. Back in the day, many used a combination of the front crawl and backstroke known as the trudgen stroke.

Other early instances of freestyle sports included discus, wrestling, and even javelin. (The 1908 Olympics featured freestyle javelin throwing, where competitors, apparently, could hold the spears … however they liked? This event was not repeated. We can’t imagine why.)

Today, because most swimmers choose to use the front crawl during freestyle competitions, the term freestyle has also come to describe the front crawl swim stroke.

The front crawl or simply crawl is one of the four essential swim strokes. Altogether, they are:


Other key moves that swimmers use are:


In the 20th century, freestyle came to be used in music again, but in a new way. By 1983, freestyle was used to refer to improvisational raps that weren’t written down. (There is record of free style music in the late 1800s, though the term was specifically used in contrast to a strict style of musical composition.)

All this talk of improvisational music and … javelin throwing has us thinking about the many different ways we can talk about freestyle. There are a number of other terms that convey the same kind of spontaneity of freestyle. Read on for some creative options for mixing it up on the fly.


The expression ad-lib is an abbreviation of the Latin expression ad libitum, meaning “at one’s pleasure.” Ad-lib itself is most often used as a verb to mean “to improvise all or part of (a speech, a piece of music, etc.).”


  • Struck dumb with stage fright, the actor forgot all his lines and was forced to ad lib his way through the rest of the act.

This use of the expression ad-lib is an Americanism dating to 1915–20.

ad hoc

A related expression that comes from Latin, too, is ad hoc. Ad hoc is an adverb meaning, “for the special purpose or end presently under consideration.” In other words, ad hoc refers to something that addresses a new or complex problem in a way that is often implied to be thrown together, newly created, or improvised.


  • We weren’t too impressed with the substitute teacher’s ad hoc approach to the lessons.

Ad hoc comes from the Latin ad hōc meaning “for this.”


Latin phrases pop up all over the place. Do you know what the ones on the dollar bill mean?


One of the most common synonyms for freestyle is improvise, a verb meaning “to compose and perform or deliver without previous preparation.” Improvising can come in handy in many situations, from getting out of a jam to public speaking, but it requires you to be able to think on your feet.


  • Mark hadn’t prepared a speech, but he quickly improvised a gracious toast to the bride and groom.

Sometimes what you need to improvise is a gift for someone. Depending on what you end up putting together, would it be considered handmade or homemade?


A more sophisticated way to say improvise is to use the verb extemporize, “to do or manage something in a makeshift way.” Extemporize is most often used to refer to speaking, singing, or playing music in a creative, on-the-spot manner—such as when you give a speech without notes.

  • The senator diverted from his prepared remarks to extemporize freely on his favorite theme: unity.

Extemporize comes from the Latin extempore meaning “out of the time, at the moment.”


Unlike the other synonyms for freestyle that we’ve looked at so far, contrive has a bit of a negative connotation. Contrive is a verb meaning “to plan with ingenuity; devise; invent.”


  • My friends contrived to introduce us at the party next weekend.

The noun form of contrive is contrivance, “something contrived; a device, especially a mechanical one.”


Riff is one of the more laid-back synonyms for freestyle. Riff is a verb meaning “to perform riffs.” While riffs are literally “a melodic phrase, often constantly repeated, forming an accompaniment or part of an accompaniment for a soloist,” the word is often used informally to mean “improvise” using a repeated phrase, situation, or idea in writing, comedy, or other arts.

  • At the wedding, the band played riffs on classic tunes that everyone knew and loved.

The origin of riff is unknown, but it is thought to be a riff on the word refrain.


Another synonym for freestyle that, like riff, is related to music is jam. Jam has a variety of meanings, including as a verb meaning “to play (a piece) in a freely improvised, swinging way; jazz up.”


  • After the musicians had warmed up, they jammed for a bit before rehearsing the newest tune.

The expression jam bands refers to a genre of music known for long, improvised riffs, such as the Grateful Dead.


The verb vamp has a variety of meanings, including “to improvise (an accompaniment or the like).” This meaning of vamp is largely used in music, but it is occasionally used to describe extemporaneous speech. This makes it closely related to our two other musical synonyms for freestyle, riff and jam.


  • The guitarist and the bassist vamped while the lead singer took a drink of water.


An important aspect of freestyling is being willing to think outside the box. That’s where the synonym spitball comes in. Spitballs are literally “a small ball or lump of chewed paper used as a missile,” but spitball is also used as an informal verb to mean “to throw out new ideas by engaging in spontaneous and unfiltered brainstorming.”


  • “Look, I’m just spitballing here,” said the engineer to the architect, “but have you considered making it more rigid?”

This informal use of spitball is actually related to the use of so-called spitballs in baseball, which were balls moistened with saliva or sweat to make them harder to hit.


Want to learn more baseball lingo? Take a swing at these baseball terms.


Our next term for improvisation comes to us from nautical terminology. Jury-rig, or jerry-rig, is a verb meaning “to assemble quickly or from whatever is at hand, especially for temporary use.” In everyday speech, the word jerry-rig is widely used, though some sticklers insist that it’s incorrect. Take a look at our explainer on the two terms to make sure you’re using them correctly.


  • The survivors hastily jury-rigged a shelter out of available materials before the storm hit.


The word makeshift is a noun and adjective meaning “a temporary expedient or substitute.”


  • Before she met her fairy godmother, Cinderella was going to wear a makeshift gown made from sewed together rags to the ball.

This is an old expression dating to the 1500s.

wing it

There are a number of informal expressions that are synonymous with freestyle. One of these is wing it, meaning “improvise.”


  • You may want to ignore the directions on the box and just wing it.

Wing it is thought to come from the theater, although its origin is uncertain. Regardless, it expresses the idea that someone is flying by the seat of their pants.

off the top of my head

Another fun informal expression along this vein is off the top of one’s head, which means “in an impromptu way, without much thought.”


  • I am afraid I cannot think of a solution to your problem off the top of my head; I will need some time to reflect on the issue.

The implication of this expression is that someone hasn’t used the inside of their head (basically, the brain) before responding.


If you can pull any of these inspirational words off the top of your head, you’ll impress everyone. Read about them now.


Our next expression related to improvisation is off-the-cuff, an adjective meaning “with little or no preparation; extemporaneous; impromptu.”


  • He delighted everyone at the party with his witty, off-the-cuff remarks.

It is thought that this expression comes from the practice that waiters or perhaps actors had of writing notes on the paper cuffs of their shirts.

How many of these jazzy synonyms for freestyle were you familiar with? You can review all of them at our word list here.

Craving to show your swimming vocab know-how? Convinced you know your crawl from your kicks? Take our freestyle-inspired swimming quiz here.

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