It’s not often one runs into a sense that hasn’t made it into the updated OED, but such is the case with notability in this quote from The Thirty-Year Genocide: Turkey’s Destruction of Its Christian Minorities, 1894–1924 by Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi:

The major urban Armenian communities were divided into three groups: a religious-clerical hierarchy headed by the patriarch, a notability, and the mass of cityfolk, most of whom were associated with professional guilds known as esnafs.

Of course I understood that notability here meant ‘a group of notables [=eminent people],’ but I’d never run across it used that way, and when I checked the OED entry (updated December 2003) I found only these senses:

1.a. A notable fact or circumstance. Obsolete.
b. A famous or prominent person.
1832 J. S. Mill Lett. (1910) I. 33 There is need that the march of mind should raise up new spiritual notabilities; for it seems as though all the old ones with one accord were departing out of the world together. In a few days or weeks the world has lost the three greatest men in it in their several departments—Goethe, Bentham, and Cuvier.
1851 Fraser’s Mag. 43 257 Along with other ancient ‘notabilities’, Cleopatra and Mark Antony were addicted to the pastime.
1897 ‘S. Tytler’ Lady Jean’s Son 193 Another notability was the gypsy beauty.
1934 D. Thomas Let. Dec. (1987) 178 I have met a number of new notabilities including Henry Moore, the sculptor.
1986 A. Powell Fisher King i. 8 Gary Lament..would, as a Fleet Street notability, undoubtedly have taken up a place at the Captain’s table.
c. A noteworthy object or feature. rare.
2.a. Noteworthiness, distinction, prominence; an instance of this.
b. Competence and efficiency in household matters (usually as a quality of a woman); = notableness n. 2. Obsolete.
1756 C. Powys Passages from Diaries Mrs. Powys (1899) 10 I’ve heard Mr Jackson talk of Lady Leicester’s great notability… Her dairy is the neatest place you can imagine, the whole marble.
a1865 E. C. Gaskell Wives & Daughters (1866) II. xxv. 261 Mary has infected me with her notability, and I’m going to work mamma a footstool.

I’ve included all the citations for the sense closest to the one I was investigating, and the first and last for the unexpected 2.b. Of course, it’s possible it’s simply an error, but it doesn’t strike me that way; it’s parallel to collective nouns like gentry and professoriat(e), and I suspect it’s used in the academic niche that talks about “notables”… but it’s hot, and I’m too zonked to investigate further.


  1. But who are the eminent people united by this collective noun? As I understand, merchants and prominent trades leaders were within the esnaf system. Are these notables a group of government service people? Or privileged classes akin to Russian raznochintsy, filling a variety of roles under a variety of legal frameworks, but all enjoying certain privileges because of their education and professional training level?

  2. I encountered this term in this sense in Russian as ‘notabilitet’. Used only in historical or sociological literature, borrowed from French notabilité, I assume.

  3. Dmitry Pruss says

    Ah, ok, wiktionary defines the word as upper middle class in a society which has both nobility and commoners,vand this layer in between. The word is alive and well in Slavic Balkan languages, so it may have been an acceptable common use word in the Ottoman times

  4. Stu Clayton says

    Along with other ancient ‘notabilities’, Cleopatra and Mark Antony were addicted to the pastime

    What pastime ? Carousing, checkers, snorting ?

  5. PlasticPaddy says
  6. Stu Clayton says

    Thanks, it didn’t occur to me to look for the magazine itself !

  7. J.W. Brewer says

    @Stu re What pastime? And I’d been hoping for snooker …

    The Fraser’s Mag. cite puts ‘notabilities’ in single quotes as indicated in the OED excerpt but also (as the scan shows) in italics, a combination that suggests they weren’t maybe as convinced it was a regular English word as the OED editors that subsequently used their usage as evidence were? That typographical combination seems to signal a nonce usage of either a coinage or loanword.

    It seems plausible to me that a lot of contemporaneous description of late Ottoman times that *wasn’t* written in Turkish would have been in French. If “notabilité” is used in this sense in French sources (which is what I’m inferring from one of the comments above although I may be misreading or overinterpreting?), perhaps these authors are sort of calquing it. Although I suppose there must have been a standard Turkish and/or Armenian word used at the time to describe the social group in question and perhaps there’s already (within a small group of specialists in whose scholarship it would come up) a standard way to English it? Dr. Morris is a bigger name than Dr. Ze’evi, but the latter has previously written on Ottoman subjects and I expect has some competence in reading Ottoman-Turkish primary sources that Dr. Morris probably lacks.

  8. AJP Crown says

    Perhaps notability could mean unearned celebrity, i.e. not ability.

  9. J.W. Brewer says

    AJPC: I assume the usage is more similar to that of, i.e. an elite class defined somewhat more loosely than an “aristocracy” or “nobility” and perhaps of mixed origin (some hereditary some not).

  10. It’s more like this: “Wealthy merchants, heads of Janissary garrisons, leaders of important craft guilds, those who had bought the right to collect taxes for the government in Istanbul, and those who supervised the distributions of wealth generated by, and the maintenance of, pious endowments.”

  11. AJP Crown says

    JW, I was only joking. First I was interested in Lady Leicester’s great notability, her competence in tidying up a marble dairy, but now I’m on to Janissaries:

    Janissaries wore special hats called “börk”. These hats also had a holding place in front, called the “kaşıklık”, for a spoon. This symbolized the “kaşık kardeşliği”, or the “brotherhood of the spoon”.

  12. David Marjanović says

    Köttbullar! I’ll probably eat some tomorrow. ^_^

  13. SFReader says


    From which the surname Khashoggi derives as discussed on LH a few times.

  14. AJP Crown says

    Had ’em yesterday (vegetariske kjøttboller).

    I first misread Janissaries as Jansenists and wondered what they were up to in Turkey.

  15. Trond Engen says

    David M.: Köttbullar! I’ll probably eat some tomorrow. ^_^

    Going to Sweden? Or straight to the source: IKEA?

  16. David Marjanović says

    Alas, neither. I bought a kilo of frozen ones in the local supermarket two or three ice ages ago and have been very slowly using them up.

    The first time I had some was in an IKEA, of course.

  17. J.W. Brewer says

    Hat was very quick on the börk börk börk response … Perhaps an opening to mention as I no doubt have before that I’ve long been fascinated by how on the dubbed-into-German version of the Muppets, the Swedish Chef becomes der dänische Koch, presumably based on a translator’s decision that Danes are inherently more comical than Swedes from a German-audience POV.

  18. as I no doubt have before

    Apparently not:

    Your search – “dänische Koch” – did not match any documents.

  19. It’s simple, Danes don’t lie.

  20. John Cowan says

    Dr. Google is getting more and more absent-minded of late. Earlier today I googled for [“knights” “of St. John”] and got four hits, none of which was “Hanc Pontem”, despite the evident appearance of those phrases in the post. I finally found it with [“commanderies”] instead.

  21. Shoulda left the “of” off.

  22. ktschwarz says

    Y is correct and so is Google: the *phrase* “of St. John” is not present in the Hanc Pontem page. Perils of being too specific in quote marks.

  23. ktschwarz says

    To find JWB’s comment, google “Swedish Chef” at One in 2009, another in 2013.

  24. Ah, he did it before, just not here! Thanks for the research.

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