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