Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Frankly, it's better to avoid the "frankly" cliche

Just as we avoid cliches in writing, we should also beware of hackneyed expressions in speaking. One that comes to mind is the habit of saying, "Frankly, .... " before a statement, usually one that is supposed to shock or insult, as in Rhett Butler's immortal, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."

The word "frankly" seems to say, "Hey, I'm being honest, so deal with it." It also makes us all feel like Clark Gable, delivering a real zinger. With frankly's overuse, however, have come the problems that--
  1. it becomes a habit, then a verbal tic, used constantly and therefore rendered trite and meaningless,
  2. it is used by many speakers exactly when they are not being frank, an
  3. it makes the listener wonder whether you've been candid all along, or whether -- as the speaker is unintentionally implying -- here comes a special treat, when at last we are hearing candid, honest words instead of the usual obfuscation or outright lies.

I recently heard a gentleman use an alternative -- "simply" -- when he gave an answer that was shorter and more direct than might have been expected. It has the same "Take that, Scarlett" rhythm, but it doesn't wave the "honesty" flag. (Of course, one had better made sure the answer is actually simple!)

On the subject of trite, or hackneyed expressions, the etymology of the latter word is interesting. Basically, the history of the word hackneyed tells us that, if we use our words all day, every day -- the way Londoners used their carriage horses -- our words get worn out.

hackney (HAK-nee) adjective
1. Trite.
2. Let out for hire.
verb tr.
1. To make banal or common by frequent use.
2. To hire out.
1. A breed of horses developed in England, having a high-stepping gait.
2. A horse suitable for routine riding or driving.
3. A carriage or coach for hire.

[Probably after Hackney in East London, where such horses were raised.
The word hack, in related senses, is a short form of hackney.]


Steve M. said...

The word "frankly" should be used only in place of "bluntly". The latter is not used often, so the work "frankly" should be used sparingly.

Clarence Critchlow said...
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