c. 1200, "noble birth, high rank or condition," from Old French noblece "noble birth, splendor, magnificence" (Modern French noblesse), from Vulgar Latin *nobilitia, from Latin nobilis (see noble (adj.)). For the Old French suffix -esse, is from Latin -itia, added to adjectives to form nouns of quality, compare fortress.
Post-Middle English uses are perhaps reborrowings from French. The meaning "persons of noble rank" is from 1590s. The French phrase noblesse oblige "privilege entails responsibility, noble birth or rank compels noble acts" (literally "nobility obliges") is attested in English by 1837.
updated on October 16, 2021