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.
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