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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).

Pursuit of happiness

Bad news, dude. We’ve settled for Happy Hour.

[Note: this column was written in January, 2012 (when subscribers read it).]

Dear Word Detective:  Rick Santorum is telling us that, in the days of the Founding Fathers, “happiness” meant living in accordance with moral principles, rather than the current meaning of a state of emotional well-being. I am skeptical; how about you? — Harold Russell.

Land O’ Goshen, are you people having another election? Laws, talk about slow learners. I warned you last time that no good would come of such foolishness. The whole ruckus is just a magnet for mountebanks and charlatans, a giant national dinner bell for every grifter and con artist north, south, east and west of the Pecos, wherever the heck the Pecos are. And then y’all always come crying, “He broke his promises!” Well of course he did. He has you in his pocket, and now he wants to hang out with all those other people you thought he didn’t like. Did everybody around here sleep through junior high school? Wasn’t this the plot of ten zillion ABC Afterschool Specials?

Anyway, thanks for an interesting question. I also like this question because it proves to me that my resolution of a few months ago to stop listening to any of these clowns is working, because I had no idea Mister … Santorum (which one is he again?) said any such thing. But the Google says he did, and the Google never lies. Maybe I should vote for the Google. It’s a corporation, and thus a person, so why not?

Onward. Apparently Rick Santorum, former US Senator from Pennsylvania and current presidential candidate, was addressing some college students in New Hampshire the other day, in the course of which, according to, “Santorum explained that when the Declaration of Independence promised life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, it did not mean happiness as we know it today. ‘Happiness is not enjoyment or pleasure,’ Santorum said. ‘Happiness means to do the right thing — to do not what we want to do, but what we ought to do.'” He reportedly also noted that “America is not a melting pot. It’s a salad bowl.” Oh goody. Wake me when it’s over.

The relevant text of the Declaration of Independence is “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The noun “happiness” means, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “The quality or condition of being happy.” The adjective “happy” first appeared in the 14th century with the meaning “lucky; fortunate,” which made sense because “happy” was based on the noun “hap” (from the Old Norse “happ”), meaning “luck” or “good fortune.” Other descendants of “hap” include “happen” (originally meaning “to occur by chance” rather than, as now, simply “to occur”) and “hapless,” meaning “unlucky.” In modern use, “happy” is most often used to mean “having a great feeling of pleasure or contentedness.”

So the question posed by Senator Santorum’s “clarification” is whether the noun “happiness,” back around 1776, meant something other than the state of being happy, content, satisfied with one’s lot, etc. Thanks to the tireless folks at the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), we have a pretty complete record of how “happiness” has been used since it first appeared in the early 16th century.

There have, indeed, been various shades of meaning attached to “happiness” over the years. From the earliest “Good fortune or luck in life or in a particular affair; success, prosperity” (OED) came, in the 1590s, “The state of pleasurable content of mind, which results from success or the attainment of what is considered good” (OED). The only other major sense to develop was around 1600, when Shakespeare introduced the use of “happiness” meaning “Successful or felicitous aptitude, fitness, suitability, or appropriateness” (OED) (“Claudio: He is a very proper man. Prince: He hath indeed a good outward happiness …,” Much Ado about Nothing).

I suppose that one could attempt to stretch “The state of pleasurable content of mind, which results from success or the attainment of what is considered good” to fit the former Senator’s definition (“Happiness means to do the right thing — to do not what we want to do, but what we ought to do”), but it really won’t work. It’s pretty clear that the Founders intended “the pursuit of happiness” to mean “a fair shot at success, enjoyment of life and contentment” not “the chance to do what is right.” People should do the right thing, of course, but Mr. Santorum should argue that point on its own merits, not by mangling history.

Side up

Just don’t ask me to explain “pediddle.”

Dear Word Detective:  Growing up, my mother used to say, “Please side-up the counters in the kitchen,” or “side-up” a place, which meant to us to clean up or clear off an area. Do you have any info on this expression or history of “side-up” or “sideup”? — Betsey.

It’s not fair, I tell you. Half you people out there seem to have grown up in a far more linguistically colorful world than I did. Your parents and grandparents were always telling you to “side up” things, or “redd up” the living room, or noting that Aunt Mabel “cleans up good” but Cousin Hubert’s car “needs washed.” I, on the other hand, spent my childhood in Connecticut just being asked to “clear off” the table or “straighten up” the living room. You guys learned to recognize “polecats” and “whistlepigs,” while I just saw skunks and groundhogs. You want to hear something truly scary? I was in college before I saw someone put ketchup on french fries. Malt vinegar, yeah, but ketchup? Weird. Seriously.

I had never heard “side” used in the “side up” way you mention, and I was expecting to have a bit of trouble tracking it down. So I was pleasantly surprised to see that the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) lists it under the verb “to side,” and defines it as meaning “to put in order, arrange; to clear or tidy up,” frequently in the form “side up.” The OED’s earliest print citation for “side up” is from about 1825 in glossaries of dialect used in Northern England, and a citation from an 1847 letter employs it in the sense you remember (“I have plenty to employ me, in siding drawers.”).

The verb “to side” itself dates back to the late 15th century, and its most familiar modern use, “to take a side; to align oneself with one party in a dispute,” dates back to the early 17th century (“The Nobility are vexed, whom we see have sided in his behalf,” Shakespeare, Coriolanus, 1623). “Side” as a verb comes, of course, from the noun “side,” which has a dizzying number of senses in English but comes from Germanic roots meaning “the long part of a thing.” I think the folks at Oxford charged with writing the entry on “side” the noun deserve some sort of medal, or at least a long vacation. The definition of one basic sense (of many) reads “One or other of the two longer (usually vertical) surfaces or aspects of an object, in contrast to the ends, or of the two receding surfaces or aspects, in contrast to the front and back.” They then add, in tiny type, “The precise application depends to some extent on the form of the object and its position in relation to the observer.” I agree, and if you need me, I’ll be upstairs lying down.

The use of “side up” to mean “to put in order, arrange; to clear or tidy up” is actually explained by a related sense, the use of “to side” as a shortened form of “to put aside,” meaning “to remove; clear away” (“Mrs. Wilson was ‘siding’ the dinner things,” 1848). It’s apparent that this sense was also used to mean “tidy up” in general, not just after a meal (“Now side everything away. The medicines too, put them in the cupboard,” 1894).

I have the funny feeling that I ought, out of simple decency, to also explain “redd up,” to which I referred above. The verb “to redd” appeared in Scots and Northern English dialects in the 15th century meaning simply “to clear out or unblock; to remove a person or a thing from a place; to clear a space.” Today it’s still used in Scotland, Northern England, and the northern Midwest in the US, most often in the sense of “to tidy, to put in order,” often in the form “to redd up” (“To do something that she suggested towards redding up the slatternly room,” 1855). The roots of “redd” are uncertain, but it’s pretty obviously related to the older and now obscure verb “to rede,” meaning “to clear,” and both “redd” and “rede” may be related to the far more familiar verb “to rid.” Interestingly, “redd” in the US may also reflect the influence of the related  Low German and Dutch “redden,” meaning “to put in order, make ready,” which would make sense given the German heritage of many parts of the US Midwest. It may also be influenced by, or even linguistically connected to, our common verb “to ready.”