A WORD IN THE HAND: FRANKLY
We’ve been franked by trumped-up free speech
A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd
As a small child I thought my mother worked in a sausage factory, because she would make frequent mention of the “franking machine” in her office. This, I imagined, was a contraption into one end of which one fed various meatstuffs and, after the turning of a few dials and the jiggling of a few knobs, out of the other end would pop a plump string of frankfurters.
What a blow it was to discover that the franking machine was nothing more than a device that inked wavy lines on envelopes to indicate postage was prepaid and sticky stamps were not required.
Such are the disappointments that dog our youthful days. But let’s get back to frank. The verb, meaning “to send by public conveyance free of expense”, comes from the French affranchir, meaning “to free”.
I suppose letters are still franked, because the few bills and brochures that make it to my post box after several months in purgatory hardly ever have actual stamps affixed to them.
The more interesting frank, however, is frank the adjective, which the Online Etymology Dictionary says entered English in about 1300 and originally meant free, liberal or generous.
Our frank is directly descended from the French franc, a word of many meanings, chief among which is “free”. (Making it kind of ironic that the French chose franc as the name of their pre-EU currency, but anyway.)
Frank the adjective gave birth to frankly the adverb, and here’s where things get really interesting. In his Dictionary of Word Origins, British lexicographer John Ayto traces how frankly moved on from freely and “gradually progressed semantically via ‘liberal’, ‘generous’ and ‘open’ to ‘candid’”.
By the 1540s, according to the OED, frank was associated with genuine, honest and sincere, and the free meaning had largely been forgotten. So today when someone says, “frankly speaking”, we usually understand them to mean, quite frankly, that they are convinced of the truth of their opinion.
But hang on a second. As writer Katy Waldman so elegantly pointed out in a New Yorker article earlier this week, the public figure who is currently most in love with the word “frankly” is Donald Trump. He uses it constantly, whether talking about how frankly unimaginable hate crimes are; how frankly terrible the world’s problems are; for how many centuries, frankly, this has all been going on; and how, frankly, things could have been done to avoid it.
Waldman says it might be a mistake to dismiss Trump’s word choice as “a child dumping out a box of crayons”. She thinks he might be using “frankly” to position himself “as the rare hero who is willing to speak out against the unuttered and unutterable forces poisoning American society”.
Put another way, Trump’s dogged faith in “frankly” might indicate a desire to be seen as bold rather than a wish to be thought of as truthful. The Century Dictionary defines “frank” as being free in the expression of one’s own opinions, including in cases “where the freedom may go so far as to be unpleasant, or may disregard conventional ideas as to reticence. Hence, while openness is consistent with timidity, frankness implies some degree of boldness”.
I always experience a small frisson of discomfort when someone starts a sentence with “quite frankly”. The chances of something pleasant following on the heels of that opening are very slim. Frankly tends to be reserved, these days, for the voicing of opinions that others find unpalatable. Those who speak frankly tend to say the things that more polite or cautious people would rather keep quiet about.
Maybe Trump’s addiction to frankly is evidence of fiendish cunning rather than a limited vocabulary. Or maybe this is one of those rare etymological occasions when, instead of shifting gradually over many decades, a word devolves suddenly and returns to its original meaning within a matter of days.
Seven hundred years ago, when it was born, frank meant free. To speak frankly meant merely to speak freely. Free speech might also be bold speech, but in frank’s youth it was not necessarily honest speech.
In frank’s original sense, Trump’s fondness for frankly could be taken as an indication of his ability to shed those hindrances that make frankness impossible for others. He has freed himself from things like rationality, clarity, compassion, sensitivity, good sense, coherence, integrity and humanity. Taken this way Trump is, quite frankly, a champion of free speech.
It has happened before, this phenomenon of words returning suddenly to their origins. Take the word “cheater”. A cheater was originally an emissary of the king who had the power to seize private property on behalf of the crown. Over the centuries the word came to mean a fraudster. Now, well … quite frankly there doesn’t seem to be a lot of difference.