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shameless pleading

Disingenuous, frank, and earnest

No, really. Honest.

Dear Word Detective:  Could you be frank and earnest with me and tell me about the origin of the word “disingenuous”? It makes sense to me that it might have come from someone not being “in genuine,” but since that seems logical, it’s probably not true. And if you have any time to spare, how about Frank and Ernest? Are the names related to being frank and earnest? — KT Kamp.

That’s a heck of a question. Are you sure you don’t want to throw in Sam and Janet Evening? How about Ima Hogg and Ura Hogg, the unfortunately-named sisters? There actually was an Ima Hogg (1882-1975), daughter of Big Jim Hogg, Governor of Texas. Ima became a noted philanthropist and patron of the arts. Ura Hogg, however, didn’t actually exist. Texas legend has it that when Big Jim Hogg was campaigning for re-election as Governor in 1892, he took along Ima and a friend of hers, whom he jokingly introduced as Ima’s sister Ura. Ima spent the rest of her life being asked whatever happened to her non-existent sister.

Ima apparently decided rather late in life to try going by the name “Imogene,” an effort which might have been slightly disingenuous, though understandable. But “disingenuous” is a bit too harsh anyway, because to be “disingenuous” is to be consciously dishonest and insincere while (and this is the important part) striving to appear innocently sincere (“Bob’s sending flowers to Ted in the hospital was disingenuous, since he was the one who put the rat poison in Ted’s taco”). We’ve been accusing folks of being “disingenuous” since the mid-17th century.

At its etymological level, “disingenuous” simply employs the prefix “dis” in its “not” sense, leaving us with the meaning “not ingenuous,” which is nice because “ingenuous” is a much more interesting word. The original meaning of “ingenuous” when it first appeared in English in the 17th century was “noble in character; kind, generous, high-minded.” It was derived from the Latin “ingenuus,” meaning “free-born, native, having the qualities of a free man” (“in” plus “gen,” root of “gignere,” to beget). Given that noble lineage was equated at the time with personal virtue, it’s not surprising that “ingenuous” was expanded to mean “honest, open, candid” and similar nice things. By the late 17th century, however, “ingenuous” had narrowed into its usual modern meaning of “innocent; innocently open and frank, guileless” (“These were fine notions to have got into the head of an ingenuous country maiden,” 1877). This modern sense can also be found in the French equivalent “ingenu” which, in the feminine form “ingenue,” is used in English to mean an innocent young woman, especially in a novel or drama. “Ingenuous” is also sometimes used to mean “clumsy; lacking craft or subtlety” (“His ingenuous attempts to frighten voters backfired badly”), and back in the 17th century, several authors, including Shakespeare, mistakenly used “ingenuous” to mean “ingenious.”

“Ernest” as a man’s name is indeed drawn from “earnest” the adjective, specifically from the French form of the Germanic “Ernst,” which signified “earnestness.” The adjective “earnest,” which we use today to mean “serious, honest and intense,” first appeared in Old English, derived from the noun “earnest” meaning “seriousness” and ultimately based on the Germanic root “ern,” meaning “vigor.”

“Frank” is a near-synonym of “earnest,” meaning “candid and direct,” and comes from the Franks, the Germanic nations that conquered Gaul in the 6th century (and from whom the nation of France takes its name). In English, where it appeared in the 14th century, “frank” as an adjective originally meant “free; not in serfdom or bondage” because, in Gaul under the Franks, only the Franks were truly free. Through a few twists and turns over the centuries, this “free” sense came to mean “unrestricted, open, honest, undisguised” (“The manners of the Afghans are frank and open,” 1815). The name “Frank” for the Germanic nations is uncertain, but the personal name “Frank” is clearly related to the Frank heritage, whether with regard to the Frankish nations themselves or to the later “honest” connotation of the word.

“Frank and earnest,” is a duplicative fixed phrase often employed in government press statements (“After frank and earnest discussions, all parties have agreed to give themselves raises”). More constructively, it was the inspiration in 1972 for the creation of “Frank and Ernest,” a very popular single-panel newspaper comic strip originally drawn by Bob Thaves (and now by his son Tom).

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