Frank (meanings)

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There are several different homographs of frank. Leaving aside some obsolete and very specialized words, for which use the OED, there are two groups of meanings which users of AWE may want to consider.

  • A franking machine is commonly used in business to
    • frank verb a letter or parcel. These pay the rate to a postal organization, and print
    • franks (noun) - labels to use instead of stamps.
  • Historically, franking originated in the time when it was the recipient of a letter who paid the postage. Certain groups of people (originally MPs) were entitled to send mail free of postage - it would be carried by the Post Office 'on government business', and delivered without charge to the recipient. This franking privilege was marked by the writer of the letter signing his name on the corner of the outside of the letter; this later became some other stamp or mark. (The abuse of the privilege, by MPs allowing all their family and friends to send mail 'under their frank', was a cause of the invention of the postage stamp.)
  • Meanings derived from postal franking include:
    • the postmark, or cancellation of a stamp by the Post Office by overprinting it, to prevent its re-use (a curious reversal of the original meaning - AWE would advise you to use postmark as a less ambiguous word);
    • certifying that no tax need be paid on certain shares (usually in the phrase franked income; the certificate is usually in the form of a tax credit given under a company's seal;
    • more figuratively, there are meanings based on the idea of 'free passage':
      • "[t]o facilitate the coming and going of (a person); to furnish with a social passport, secure entrée into society for" (OED, s.v. frank v.2 meaning 1.c);
      • to carry a passenger for free (this meaning appears obsolete);
      • to exempt from payment - or any other demand (also obsolete).
  • A Frank was a member of the Germanic tribes that conquered the Roman province of Gaul in the 6th century CE. Frank is the root of France, the current name of the territory formerly called Gaul. Frank (or Frankish) can be used as the adjectives describing such people.
    • This (and the local form 'feringhee') became the common name among Arabs for 'Western European'.
  • Because all Franks were free in Gaul, in a way not known in other countries, frank came to be a more common adjective meaning 'free'. (For a similar linking of a quality to a people, see Slav - slave.) This is not much used in a political sense nowadays, although still to be seen in the doublet frank and free; but its meaning has expanded in various directions:
    • 'open', 'sincere', 'honest - usually with a strong implication of 'unconcealed'; somewtimes in the doublet frank and open;
    • 'generous' (this meaning is now obsolete, although it is a step on the road to the verb 'to frank' in the postal sense);
    • 'of superior quality' (this sense is the root of frankincense.
  • Frank can also be a proper noun (see Frank (name)) - and in colloquial American English can be used as an affectionate abbreviation for frankfurter.