Honest, Candid, and Frank

By Maeve Maddox

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I’m always glad to receive topic suggestions from readers. Sometimes I may not quite understand what is wanted, but comments can still trigger a train of thought leading to a post.

Recently, a reader complained about “Gen Z’s use of honest in place of candor or frank.”

Lacking examples of the perceived misuse, I could only try to discover for myself the optimum use of these words.

For the sake of parallel construction, I’ll use the adjective candid and not the noun candor.

All three adjectives, honest, candid, and frank are used with different shades of meaning. Depending upon context, they may or may not be used interchangeably.

Honest came into English from French, with meanings related to character and behavior: honorable, virtuous, just, frank, conforming to the rules of polite society, courteous, civil, decent, respectable, (of a woman) irreproachable in conduct, chaste. People described as “honest” were worthy of honor or respect.

In modern usage, honest is used with three main meanings:

1 free of deceit and untruthfulness.
2 morally correct or virtuous; law-abiding
3 (of an action) blameless or well intentioned, even if unsuccessful or misguided.

Candid comes from the Latin word for “white” or “glistening.” Our word candidate comes from the practice of Roman office-seekers who chalked their togas to make them strikingly white.

Two definitions of candid in the OED are:

• free from bias; fair, impartial, just
• frank, open, ingenuous, sincere in what one says

To these meanings of candid, Merriam-Webster adds “disposed to criticize severely.” This definition surprises me because candid seems to me to convey the idea of good-natured, unbiased truth-telling, not severity.

Candid has also taken on the meaning of “informal” from a type of photography that focuses on people who are unaware of the camera. A “candid photograph” is unposed. A “candid interview” is unplanned and therefore might be more revealing of the subject’s true feelings.

Frank comes from medieval Latin francus, “free,” by way of Old French frank. Modern definitions of frank in the OED:

• not practicing concealment; ingenuous, open, sincere. Of feelings: undisguised.
• with reference to speech: candid, outspoken, unreserved.
• avowed, undisguised; downright.

From these definitions we can see that honest, candid, and frank are synonyms when the meaning is sincere, truthful, or outspoken.

They do not work as synonyms when the meaning is “morally correct or virtuous” or “well intentioned.”

Of the three, honest is the most widely used because it carries the most meanings.

Judging by Google hits and the Ngram Viewer, all-purpose honest receives far more use than either frank or candid.

Before researching this post, I would have thought that the intensifier brutally was used only with honest and frank. The Ngram viewer indicates that—until recently—that was so. Now, however, the phrase “brutally candid” has been normalized as a podcast title and as a “genre” on the Goodreads site.

To me, candid suggests a vulnerability on the part of the person being open about personal matters. I interpret “candid criticism” as truthful, but tactful—cushioned with references to something positive about the work of the person being criticized.

I associate frank with Rhett’s response when Scarlett asks him, “if you go, what shall I do?”

“My dear, I don’t give a damn.”

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