noblesse oblige

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noblesse oblige

Post by Ken Greenwald » Wed Jun 17, 2020 9:55 pm

<2020 “As a business owner, it was not George’s priority to make money so much as it was to provide jobs . . . George had little use for material possessions and none for conspicuous consumption. . . . There are many non-profits . . . that have benefited from his . . . munificence, mostly given in anonymity. The values associated with the terms ‘noblesse oblige’ and ‘protestant work ethic’ were a calling cemented in him from youth.”—The Boston Globe (Boston, Massachusetts), 20 April, page i6>

This is an expression I occasionally see around and which I think has a nice ring to it.


Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary & Oxford English Dictionary

noblesse oblige noun and phrase

noun: The obligation of honorable, generous, and responsible behavior that is a concomitant of high rank or birth; Obligation as a function of (high) social standing. Also in extended use.

phrase: Noble ancestry constrains one (to honourable behaviour); privilege entails responsibility. Also in extended use.

Origin: French, literally, nobility obligates [[OED literally, ‘noble rank entails responsibility’]]

First Known Use: 1837
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The following quotes are from The Oxford English Dictionary and archived sources:

Note: No other dictionary I checked bothers discussing a separate ‘phrase’ usage as the OED does, nor do I think that it’s all that important, but I've included it anyway. :o

<1837 “To be sure, if ‘noblesse oblige’, royalty must do so still more.”—Records of Later Life (1882) by F.A. Kemble, I.86, Letter 1 August.>[phrase]

<1873 “I always regarded you as a sacred personage, condemned to noblesse oblige, and all that!”—The Pillars of the House by C. M. Yonge, IV. xxxix, page 150> [[noun]]

<1973 “He was pleased to inform the servants of his whereabouts; it simplified their reporting for the KGB. Noblesse oblige.Moscow by Nightmare by J. Shub, xiii, page 150> [phrase]

<1903 “When someone excused coarseness . . . on the ground of genius, he said, ‘That is an error: Noblesse oblige.[/b]’”—Robert Browning by G. K. Chesterton, v. page 114> [phrase]

<1992 “Gillespie, exercising a monarch's noblesse oblige, also appeared, unbilled, at ‘Bebop, Forty and Under’.”—The Atlantic Monthly, March, page 114/3> [[Dizzy" Gillespie was an American jazz trumpeter, bandleader, composer, singer.]] [noun]

<2019 “Bertha Lewis, president of the Black Institute, laughed when told of the AGC’s [[Associated General Contractors]] plan and said it amounted to an empty gesture by the group’s all-white leadership. ‘It’s the same old story.’ Said Lewis. ‘This is about them being able to say we’re addressing inequity . . . This is their noblesse oblige.’”—Daily News (New York, New York), 14 January, page 18i> [noun]
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Ken Greenwald – June 17, 2020
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Re: noblesse oblige

Post by Phil White » Thu Jun 18, 2020 12:31 am

Thanks for that, Ken. It is odd to me that you find the phrasal usage less important. For my part, I have never in my life heard the use as a noun. I only know the phrasal use.
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Re: noblesse oblige

Post by Ken Greenwald » Thu Jun 18, 2020 8:36 pm

Hi Phil,

It’s interesting that you said you never heard this expression being used as a noun, but only in phrasal usage, and in my experience, although limited, I thought I saw it as almost always being used as a noun. In trying to figure out why this was, it came to me that maybe it might be attributed to a difference in U.K. versus U.S. usage and although The Oxford English Dictionary listed and gave examples of both, maybe the phrase definition was dominant in the U.K.

So, I thought it might be a good idea for me to check out some other U.K.-based dictionaries. Turns out that the only two I could find were the (Cambridge Dictionary) and (Lexico).

The Cambridge Dictionary defined it as being a noun but provided both U.K. and U.S. pronunciations (I’ll be damned if I could tell the difference) and provided 13 examples.

Lexico defined it as being a phrase and provided 11 examples. And in looking through these examples it seemed to me that they were being used as a noun with the possible exception of the 2nd from the bottom. Could it be that this dictionary was using the word ‘phrase’ loosely and that for many people, the ‘phrase’ and ‘noun’ usage are distinguishable?

What do you make of all this?
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Ken – June 18, 2020
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Re: noblesse oblige

Post by Phil White » Thu Jun 18, 2020 9:27 pm

Your example "Gillespie, exercising a monarch's noblesse oblige, also appeared, unbilled, at ‘Bebop, Forty and Under", for example, sounds totally alien to my ears. And your 2019 citation grates very badly for me.

I only know the expression as a sort of standalone tag. Something like "I have to go to the charity gala tonight. Noblesse oblige!" would be fine for me.
And I would be happy to turn the tag into an adjective as well, although I would probably put it in quotes or italics: "... a noblesse oblige mentality ...".
And I'm not bothered with cases where you are referring to the entire concept by using the phrase as something that looks like a noun: "It's a case of noblesse oblige." But again, I would put it in quotes or italics.
In reality, of course, the expression is a complete utterance comprising a subject and an intransitive verb (in French), and that is the way I understand it. There is a limit to the extent that I feel able to manipulate the entire expression as a noun. If, somewhere in the back of my head, I am rendering "noblesse oblige" as "the privilege of one's position brings with it the duty of care", I find it hard to slot that into a noun function: "Gillespie, exercising a monarch's the privilege of one's position brings with it a duty of care, appeared ..." throws a divide by zero error in my language processing cortex.
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