noble

Not so long ago PBS aired a documentary television series about Prohibition, a policy that made alcoholic beverages illegal in the United States, and that had been promoted as The Noble Experiment. But it should have been knowable to the promoters of Prohibition that the experiment wouldn’t work. If that comes across as an awkward construction—should have been knowable to the promoters—it’s nevertheless an etymologically relevant one, because the Latin adjective nobilis, the predecessor of Spanish and English noble, meant ‘that can be known; knowable.’ Even in Roman times the adjective added the sense ‘well-known, famous.’ Because famous people often accumulate wealth and property and pass those along to their descendants, noble also came to mean ‘high-born, connected to royalty, elite.’ Another line of semantic development took noble from ‘capable of being known’ to ‘worthy of being known’ and even ‘worthy of emulating,’ so that we can say that someone had a noble motivation in performing such and such an action or engaged in a noble sacrifice.

The opposite of noble is ignoble, which is a living form in English but an archaic one in Spanish, which has switched to innoble. A natural question arises: where did the g in ignoble come from, given that none of our negative prefixes like in- (and the assimilated forms il-, im-, ir-), no-, non-, and un-, have a g in them. The answer is that the g is part of the root, not part of the negative prefix: Latin nobilis had started out as gnobilis. Just as that g- grew silent and ceased to be written in Latin nobilis, a similar development took place in English, where the related native verb is know; we still write the k, but we’ve long since stopped pronouncing it. It’s a desiccated fossil, but one useful in revealing the etymological connection between English and Latin (and therefore Spanish).

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

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3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Just A Smidgen
    Nov 29, 2011 @ 13:21:57

    Such a noble blog post… I hadn’t ever learned any of this in school. I love reading the history of language. We had a discussion last night when I said “remunerate”… my friends thought it was “renumerate” (i.e. number) and were surprised when they were incorrect:)

    Reply

  2. Steve Schwartzman
    Nov 29, 2011 @ 14:16:55

    I couldn’t have said it better: “Such a noble blog post.” Thanks. Like you, I’m fascinated by the history of the English language (and others), but I don’t think I learned anything about it in elementary school or junior high school. Even in high school I learned about the history of the English language primarily through the foreign languages I studied, beginning with Latin in the ninth grade and French in the tenth. That was half a century ago, and students in our country learn much less about English now, alas.

    Thanks for your example about remunerate and renumerate. I’m intrigued by words in which you can switch the positions of two letters to create another word. There’s a shopping center near me called the Gateway but I often see the sign for it as the Getaway.

    Reply

  3. Trackback: cognoscenti « Spanish-English Word Connections

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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