A free-for-all is an English idiom that is meant to describe some sort of event that has rapidly gotten out of control. This phrase may also be used as a way to describe an especially wild fight between two or more parties. In general, a free-for-all occurs whenever some sort of situation has lost all semblance of order and degenerates into chaos. As a result, all parties involved are able to just force themselves into the fray, which is where the phrase gets its meaning.
There are many idioms used by people as way to interject some color into their everyday speech patterns. Instead of simply using the literal wording to describe some situation, an idiom gives a speaker a way to use figurative language to get his or her point across. As a result, the meanings of these idioms may be far removed from what the words included in them literally say. Many idioms can be used to describe a particularly chaotic situation or fight, and one of the most popular of these occurs when someone calls something a free-for-all.
Perhaps the simplest way to use this phrase is as a means of describing a fight between two or more parties. The meaning of the phrase suggests that it is best used when the fight is a particularly wild one. As an example, someone might say, "Three different gangs met out on the streets that night and engaged in a real free-for-all." In this case, the implication is that this was a disorderly fight marked by confusion and chaos.
This idiomatic expression may also be used for situations that don't necessarily involve a physical fight. Sportswriters often use the term to describe a particularly wild contest between two teams. It can also be used as way to describe an argument or a discussion that is marked by a lack of decorum and civility. In this context, a person might say, "Boy, the way the school board and the parents went at it at that meeting — it was a wild free-for-all."
The meaning of this phrase comes directly from the meaning of the words that are connected by the hyphens. These words imply that anyone involved in a free-for-all can do whatever he or she wants in the middle of the situation to get the job done. It's similar to the expression "every man for himself" in that it suggests that there aren't any rules overriding the situation in question.