Q: What is the origin of the phrase “quite Frankly,” and why do I brace myself when somebody begins a sentence with it?
A: Why do you brace yourself? Because “quite frankly,” which means “in an honest, open, or candid manner,” is often used to introduce an opinion that might not be welcome.
The phrase itself is relatively new, showing up in the 19th century, but the words “quite” and “frankly” are quite old, dating back to the Middle Ages.
Before going on, we should mention that there’s no reason to capitalize the “f” of “frankly” (as you’ve done), though it’s ultimately derived from a proper noun in medieval Latin.
“Frankly” is an adverbial form of the adjective “frank,” which Middle English got from franc in Old French around 1300. At that time, both the English and French adjectives meant free.
The French in turn got the word franc from francus, a medieval Latin word used as an adjective for free and as a noun for a member of the Frankish tribes that conquered Roman Gaul and gave France its name.
The Oxford English Dictionary says it’s “usually believed that the Franks were named from their national weapon,” the javelin, which is frankon in reconstructed prehistoric Germanic.
So how did the Latin word for a member of a Germanic tribe come to mean free in French and English?
After the Franks conquered Gaul in the fifth century, “full political freedom was granted only to ethnic Franks or those of the subjugated Celts who were specifically brought under their protection,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.
“Hence, franc came to be used as an adjective meaning ‘free’—a sense it retained when English acquired it from Old French,” Ayto writes.
The OED notes confusion as far back as the Middle Ages over which came first, the use of the Latin francus for an ethnic Frank or in the sense of free:
“The notion that the ethnic name is derived from the adjective meaning ‘free’ was already current in the 10th century; but the real relation between the words seems to be the reverse of this.”
Ayto explains that the “free” sense of the adjective “frank” in English “gradually progressed semantically via ‘liberal, generous’ and ‘open’ to ‘candid.’ ”
The “candid” sense of “frank” and “frankly” showed up in the 1500s, according to citations in the OED.
We’ve already discussed the adverb “quite” on the blog, noting that it was an intensifier (meaning completely or to the utmost degree) when it showed up in Middle English around 1300 or perhaps earlier.
In the early 19th century, English speakers began using it as a “moderating adverb” as well, meaning somewhat, rather, relatively, and so on.
In the phrase “quite frankly,” the word “quite” is being used as an intensifier to emphasize “frankly.”
So while the adverb “frankly” by itself means “honestly, openly, or candidly,” the adverbial phrase “quite frankly” says the same thing more emphatically.
Like “quite frankly,” the word “frankly” is often “used for emphasizing that what you are about to say is your honest opinion, even though the person you are talking to might not like it,” according to the online Macmillan Dictionary.
The phrase “quite frankly” can be used adverbially in two different ways:
(1) It can modify a particular verb, as in “He spoke quite frankly about his past” or “The doctors said quite frankly that it was hopeless.”
(2) It can modify the entire sentence or clause that follows, as in “Quite frankly, I was happy to see them go,” or “I returned the dress because, quite frankly, it was too expensive.”
Generally, when “quite frankly” appears at the beginning of a sentence or clause as in #2, it’s being used as what’s called a sentence adverb. (We wrote about sentence adverbs in a 2011 post.)
The OED doesn’t have an entry for “quite frankly,” but we’ve found examples of the phrase dating back to the early 1800s.
The earliest example we found in searches of online databases uses the phrase simply to modify an individual verb.
In the citation, from Rebuilding a Lost Faith (1826), John L. Stoddard writes that some Anglican clergymen take oaths to accept the faith’s doctrines, and then reject their literal meaning:
“Such clergymen, however, say quite frankly: — ‘The Thirty-Nine Articles and the Prayer-Book do not mean what you think they mean.’ ”
The use of “quite frankly” as a sentence adverb didn’t emerge until many decades later.
The earliest example we found is from an anonymous poem, “To Maud,” published in Punch on Feb. 17, 1894:
“Here’s a Valentine for you—lace, tinsel, and satin,
With Cupids all over it up to such tricks;
There’s gauze in profusion, and, oh, it is pat in
The language of love!—for it cost three-and-six.
Quite frankly I wouldn’t be thought to defend it
(Though I swear that I bought it as perfectly new);
And the reason, in fact, why I happen to send it,
Is to have an excuse for a letter—to you.”
And here’s a less romantic example, from “My Methods in Breeding Poultry,” a 1900 pamphlet by Henry P. McKean: “Quite frankly, I am a great believer in Mr. Darwin’s little phrase, ‘Like begets like.’ ”
We’ve also found several examples dating from the 1860s of sentences and clauses beginning “to speak quite frankly.” The writers used the longer phrase much like a sentence adverb, to modify everything that followed.
Was this the forerunner of the sentence adverb “quite frankly”? Perhaps. Quite frankly, we can’t say for sure.
We should mention that “quite” is used to modify many sentence adverbs besides “frankly.” The OED has a citation for “quite seriously” used this way as early as 1872, and we found one for “quite honestly” from 1893.