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Lexical Investigations: Noble

noble, Nobel, Nobel PrizeWhen it comes to the word noble, the senses “royal” and “distinguished” are probably quite familiar, but there are many other uses of this word that might surprise you. Just as a noble person of virtue can resist manipulation, since the 14th century, stones and metals that resist corrosion are also said to be noble. Noble in this sense came to be synonymous with nonreactive. The noble gases were given their name in the late nineteenth century because at the time they were thought to be chemically nonreactive. Similarly, in falconry, a noble hawk is one who does not chase prey but rather swoops down on it. Over time, many people have accepted the phrase “noble hawk” to mean the bird is majestic, but it actually comes from the bird’s ability not to be drawn into a chase by its prey.

In the mid-twentieth century, noble became US slang for a person who during a strike protects or organizes those crossing the picket lines to work. This slang might have come from the senses of detached or nonreactive, or it might be a sarcastic use of the regal, high-class sense.

The word noble is also commonly confused with the Nobel Prize (named for Alfred Nobel who founded it), though the two words are of no relation.

How do you use the word noble?

Read our previous post about the word genius.
A motley combination of Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Germanic dialects, the English language (more or less as we know it) coalesced between the 9th and 13th centuries. Since then, it has continued to import and borrow words and expressions from around the world, and the meanings have mutated. (Awesome and awful once meant nearly the same thing.) Some specimens in the English vocabulary have followed unusually circuitous routes to their place in the contemporary lexicon, and this series, Lexical Investigations, unpacks those words hiding in our midst.

32 Comments

  1. Tallbacka -  July 24, 2013 - 8:32 am

    I meant to write: Peter Olofsson(born1656)…

    Reply
  2. Tallbacka -  July 24, 2013 - 7:32 am

    Alfred Nobel’s grandfather Immanuel(1757-1839) decided to shorten his surname Nobelius to Nobel sometime around 1780. Peter Nobel(born 1656) took the name Nobelius when he was admitted to University. The name is a latinisation of his home place Nöbbelöv in the South of Sweden.

    Reply
  3. Aaron Gabrielle -  July 22, 2013 - 9:19 pm

    This is a good article. Although I was learning English, I did not know it turned out one word in the English language has a fairly broad meaning, thanks for the information.

    Reply
  4. Ralph Sutton -  July 22, 2013 - 5:17 am

    Noble is slso used in viticulture and wine making. They refer to noble rot, whatever that is, that is supposed to do something good to the wine. Perhaps one of our contributors coud elucidate.

    Reply
  5. loghaD -  July 21, 2013 - 9:00 am

    …although it should perhaps be mentioned that “nobel” is also a word in Swedish (and has been since at least the 17th century), with roughly the same meaning as “noble”.

    It is pronounced different from “Nobel”, however:

    nobel – /’noːbɛl/
    Nobel – /no’bɛl/

    Reply
  6. George -  July 20, 2013 - 6:11 pm

    I was in a Salinas, Ca audience honoring Nobel prize winner John Steinbeck (literature), when Mrs.(Elaine) Steinbeck was introduced with a reference made of her late husband and his being the recipient of the “Noble Prize”.

    Reply
  7. Harsha -  July 20, 2013 - 11:51 am

    “The word noble is also commonly confused with the the Nobel Prize (named for Alfred Nobel who founded it), though the two words are of no relation”.

    You used ‘the’ twice before ‘Nobel Prize’. Please correct it.

    Nice read.

    Reply
  8. christopher -  July 20, 2013 - 10:16 am

    Alfred the dynamite maker. I had no clue about the word nobel great read.

    Reply
  9. David Sutherland -  July 20, 2013 - 3:15 am

    “The word noble is also commonly confused with the the Nobel Prize (named for Alfred Nobel who founded it), though the two words are of no relation.”

    This is technically incorrect. The English word ‘noble’ is derived from the German ‘nobel’ which has a similar meaning. The Swedish surname Nobel is almost certainly derived from this German word, ie some ancestor of Alfred’s centuries ago probably did something regarded as ‘nobel’ and the moniker stuck. This makes all three (noble, nobel and Nobel) highly related etymologically, even though the original meaning of surnames is usually disregarded.

    Reply
  10. Turtlemaniac -  July 19, 2013 - 10:49 am

    I use the word noble for good. Like “That was noble pie.”

    Reply
  11. Peter -  July 19, 2013 - 9:22 am

    You misspelled “noble” as “nobel” in the part where you distinguish it from the Nobel peace prize, making it very confusing to read.

    Reply
  12. bon d -  July 18, 2013 - 10:57 pm

    not a very satisfy investigation on the lexical “noble”

    Reply
  13. malathi -  July 18, 2013 - 9:42 pm

    it is pretty interesting to know the related meaning behind the words.

    Reply
  14. Johnny -  July 18, 2013 - 9:38 pm

    The Nobel prize, of course, lost all credibility when it was awarded to Obama. The Nobel shouldn’t go to someone authorizing drone strikes…

    Reply
  15. svenjamin -  July 18, 2013 - 11:01 am

    Don’t forget noble gases…

    Reply
  16. PeeJ -  July 18, 2013 - 8:24 am

    This post interests me because my name is Patrick, which means “noble.”

    Reply
  17. freida -  July 18, 2013 - 6:26 am

    Please make correction to:

    The word nobel is also commonly confused with the the Nobel Prize (named for Alfred Nobel who founded it), though the two words are of no relation.

    It should read:

    The word NOBLE is also commonly …….

    Reply
  18. Roland Williams -  July 18, 2013 - 3:17 am

    “…many people have excepted…” Should read: “…many people have accepted…”

    Reply
  19. Dai -  July 17, 2013 - 10:39 pm

    “many people have excepted the phrase” ..? -> “All sorts of noble mean non-reactive. Except for that noble hawk – that thing’s just one regal dude.”

    Accepted.

    Reply
  20. Charlie Gray -  July 17, 2013 - 8:39 pm

    Do you mean “the word ‘noble’”?

    Reply
  21. Chris -  July 17, 2013 - 3:31 pm

    I can’t decide if that’s a typo or not in the article: “many people have excepted the phrase ‘noble hawk’ to mean….”

    Did the author mean “excepted” or “accepted”? I think “accepted,” which gives the sentence a rather different meaning, one that I can, umm, accept better.

    Reply
  22. Hebeestie Wallopman -  July 17, 2013 - 1:58 pm

    Over time, many people have excepted the phrase “noble hawk” to mean the bird is majestic

    Really? Excepted instead of accepted, where’s the copy editing?

    Reply
  23. John -  July 17, 2013 - 10:00 am

    Please respell “excepted”

    Reply
  24. peter -  July 17, 2013 - 9:29 am

    “The word nobel is also commonly confused with the the Nobel Prize….” What? I think the author meant to write “the word noble…” instead.

    Reply
  25. Rachel -  July 17, 2013 - 8:25 am

    Just a heads up, “noble” is spelled “nobel” in the title and the paragraph about the Nobel Prize.

    Reply
  26. Ole TBoy -  July 17, 2013 - 6:59 am

    It is relatively difficult to use the word noble in these times for it is hard to think of such a person, especially in our national political leadership. Even in better times, when one might be tempted to call JFK noble, we knew his treatment of women as sex objects could hardly be called noble.
    It seems that Obama certainly has “noble sentiments,” but the political arena makes it very hard to live up to those sentiments. I guess noble is a word that is falling out of fashion. Sad, sad, sad.

    Reply
  27. Holly Hall -  July 17, 2013 - 6:46 am

    Do you mean people have “excepted” the term “noble hawk,” or accepted it? I don’t understand the usage there…

    Reply
  28. Eric -  July 17, 2013 - 3:24 am

    No bull……..equating the name Nobel and the word noble is just silly.

    Reply
  29. john-harold -  July 17, 2013 - 2:21 am

    “The word nobel is also commonly confused with the the Nobel Prize (named for Alfred Nobel who founded it), though the two words are of no relation”.

    Please fix the error in the last sentence as follows: change “nobel” to ‘noble’, and remove one of the definite articles “the” before Nobel Prize.
    This is a great piece. Keep it up.

    Reply
  30. Aaron -  July 16, 2013 - 7:59 pm

    Alfred Nobel was also remembered for inventing the first dynamite to help miners. He also changed the Swedish formerly iron and steel manufacturer company, Bofors, into an armament manufacturing company. Grealtly, he was an awesome chemist and inventor. Though people only remember him for the prizes called “Nobel Prize.”

    Reply
  31. luvmonkey -  July 16, 2013 - 5:52 pm

    My Nana says: “You done noble” meaning “You’ve done really well”

    Reply
  32. Chaim -  July 16, 2013 - 5:28 pm

    This is an interesting article. Despite my love of the English language, I had no idea that what I thought was such a simple-minded albeit profound word had so many alternate meanings and uses!
    Also, I am no English major, but is it possible that the word “accepted” was meant to be used in lieu of “excepted” in the sentence “Over time, many people have excepted the phrase….” above?

    Reply

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