We must moble; we must not be mobile; we must not be mob-led; we must be mobled. So may we be both hobbled and ennobled. Wrap a scarf around your face and giggle demurely; peer past the wool or tulle like a vagabond or mobster or some marbled statue; wait for the time when you may again be emboldened.

I’m sure you, like me, know this word first from Shakespeare, reading Hamlet by the firelight: the prince is watching the players rehearse, and one of them, narrating the fall of Troy, says “But who, O, who had seen the mobled queen—” Hamlet (like many a listener) says “‘The mobled queen’?” and Polonius replies, “That’s good; ‘mobled queen’ is good.” None of which helps you to know what it means.

Nor helps you to know how to say it, by the way. I suspect that you, as I, assumed it rhymed with “nobled.” But no. It rhymes with “hobbled.” And, I say with relief, it is (unlike contumely) the part of speech it appears to be: a past participle, pressed into use as an adjective. The verb is moble, a word uncommon enough that your autocorrect will get into a fight with you over the absence of an i between and l.

And what does it mean? Muffled, scarf-wrapped. I’m sure that wearing a surgical mask counts too. In 1985, A.S. Byatt used it in Still Life: “He remembered this time in very bright, clear primary colours, but all softly muffled, or mobled, as if seen through white veiling.” In 1926, Victoria Sackville-West wrote in Land “How delicate in spring they be / That mobled blossom and that wimpled tree.” And in 1877, the Earl of Southesk was kind enough to use it in Meda Maiden in a way from which the sense may be deduced: “There rested a woman,—close mantled in brown, / Mobled and muffled from sandal to crown.”

Why is said it like it comes from mob? Perhaps it does – one speculative etymology ties it to mob plus the frequentative –le suffix. But perhaps it does not. (Note that mob in turn comes from mobile vulgus, ‘rabble, common people’, and does not show up in English before moble does.) It has a certain kinship with muffle in form as well as sense, and mobble used to be a spelling of it (the one-version prevailing probably because that’s how it was spelled in editions of Shakespeare and that’s where nearly everyone who knows it knows it from).

Well, some things just show up and no one has the last word on how they got there or how they spread. So it is. But if you don’t want them to spread further, you can stay in your bubble, or, if you must venture out in the mob, you can self-moble. You may feel hobbled, but it is more noble.

One response to “moble

  1. Thanks! I learned something new today.

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