Noblesse oblige

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The term noblesse oblige came into use in Great Britain in the 1830s. We will examine the meaning of the phrase noblesse oblige, where it came from and some examples of its use in sentences.

Noblesse oblige is a noun that means the obligation that a member of the privileged class has toward the less privileged class. The idea is that someone who has been blessed with good fortune by virtue of his birth, luck or opportunities should feel a responsibility in good conscience to help those who are in need. Noblesse oblige is a duty to to perform kindness and generosity to those who need it. In the past this idea applied to kings, princes, lords, dukes, earls and all the peers, gentlemen and English nobility with titles that had been inherited. The idea of noblesse oblige was imported from France in the 1830s, and literally means the nobility is obligated. This obligation to be noble in manners and morals extends to the precept that the wealth and education that the nobility enjoys should do some good for those less fortunate. This was true in feudal times, when the lord was obligated to take care of his serfs to a certain degree. Today, the aristocratic among us are not necessarily the ruling class, and though they may be compelled morally to aid those who need it, they are not legally obligated. The term noblesse oblige is now applied to the aristocracy and also the economic upper class, those who live in high society, those with intellectual wealth, those who are monetarily wealthy, those who are educated. The idea that the privileged are obliged to help the poor is found in the Bible: “But even more will be demanded from the one to whom much has been entrusted.” (Luke 12:48) Noblesse oblige is a loan word. Loanwords and loan phrases are terms that have been taken from other languages and used as English words and phrases. Another term for a loanword is a borrowed word. Loanwords and loan phrases come into the English language when English speakers come into contact with other languages and cultures. When loanwords and loan phrases first enter the English language, they are used by bilingual speakers and usually maintain the original pronunciation from the source language. As other English speakers adopt the loanwords and loan phrases, the pronunciation may change to incorporate sounds more in keeping with the English speakers’ accents. A foreign word evolves into a loanword when it is adopted into the vocabulary of the average English speaker, not just English speakers who come into contact with the source language and culture. Note that the term noblesse oblige retains its French pronunciation: no-BLESS oh-BLEEJ.


Ross Douthat from the New York Times writes, “Those virtues included a spirit of noblesse oblige and personal austerity and piety that went beyond the thank-you notes and boat shoes and prep school chapel-going — a spirit that trained the most privileged children for service, not just success, that sent men like Bush into combat alongside the sons of farmers and mechanics in the same way that it sent missionaries and diplomats abroad in the service of their churches and their country.” (The Wakeforest Review)

There is a French term — “noblesse oblige” — referring to the idea people who have inherited wealth or who have had success early in early life have an obligation to help others. (The Kankakee Daily Journal)

Over the past few decades, formerly fringe libertarian ideas have become normal parts of public discourse, thanks in large part to this veneer of respectability and noblesse oblige. (GQ Magazine)