Thursday, December 03, 2020

'Such Nobility of Character'

Ahead of me at the red light was a blue pickup truck with this slogan painted in elegant script on the tailgate: “Treat Yourself to a Taste of Nobility.” “Taste” suggests a bar or restaurant but the pickup appeared not to be a commercial vehicle. I saw no other signs or lettering on it. The light turned green, the pickup crossed the intersection and I turned left. This often happens. I’m a fairly compulsive reader even when driving, so I’m often left to contemplate the gnomic sentiments of fellow drivers. At home, the internet left the phrase a mystery. I suspected it might be a commercial or pop-culture allusion, but found no mentions online. 

I take nobility in this context not to mean, as Dr. Johnson defined it in his Dictionary, “antiquity of family joined with splendor.” That’s un-American, not a sentiment you’d find on a pickup truck in Texas. The only nobles I recognize in that sense are Duke Ellington, Count Basie and King Oliver. The OED offers seven nuances of meaning for nobility. The one I hope the pickup’s driver intended, because it is available to all of us, is the fourth: “The quality of being noble in character; esp. the quality of having high moral principles or ideals; loftiness of character.”


Among the citations given by the OED is one from Act II, Scene 1 of Othello. Iago says to Roderigo: “Do thou meet me presently at the harbour. Come hither. If thou be’st valiant,-- as, they say, base men being in love have then a nobility in their natures more than is native to them--list me. The lieutenant tonight watches on the court of guard:--first, I must tell thee this--Desdemona is directly in love with him.”


For reasons of nostalgia I’m partial to another of the OED’s nobility citations. Edgar Rice Burroughs was the first writer I actively collected as a boy. More than ten years before I went to work for Kay’s Books in downtown Cleveland, I was already a customer of the now-defunct bookstore, searching for hardcover and paperback editions of not just the Tarzan books but the Pellucidar, Barsoom and other more science fiction-oriented series cranked out by Burroughs. I couldn’t read his novels today on a bet but I remember the pleasure they gave me almost sixty years ago. The OED’s citation is taken from a passage from The Beasts of Tarzan (1914):


“That such nobility of character could lie beneath so repulsive an exterior never ceased to be a source of wonder and amazement to her.”

1 comment:

Thomas Parker said...

I once had one of those "design your own bumpersticker" outfits make a half dozen stickers that said "Plant a Tree for Sony Bono". I'm still proud of it.