Technically, I wasn’t looking this exact phrase, I was looking up the acronym “OBE.” From context, I was pretty sure that the “BE” was “British Empire,” but I wasn’t sure of the “O” or of the specifics.
OBE is a title that the Queen grants. There are five “classes,” in order from least prestige to most. OBE is one of the lesser ones.
- MBE: Member of the Order of the British Empire
- OBE: Officer of the Order of the British Empire
- CBE: Commander of the Order of the British Empire
- KBE/DBE: Knight/Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. KBE is male and DBE is for females.
- GBE: Knight/Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire
(So, weirdly, “OBE” means both “Officer of the Order of the British Empire” and just “Order of the British Empire.”)
The top two are the equivalent of being “knighted.” Recipients of those two are addressed as “Sir” or “Dame.” They are said to have been granted “Knighthood” or “Damehood.”
Wikipedia has various lists of the people who have received the very top rank, and it’s quite rare. There are only one or two GBE’s awarded every year. It’s mainly scientists and high-ranking military members, with the occasional actor (Anthony Hopkins in 1993, for example).
The second tier is more common – it looks like about 20-30 men and the same number of women each year. Again, lots of scientists and people who work with non-profits, with the occasional actor (Emma Thompson in 2018, for example).
Confusingly, there is also a “Knight Bachelor,” which is someone who is “knighted,” but is not inducted into the Order of the British Empire. This seems to happen more often to figures of popular culture, like Elton John and Ian McKellen. Sometimes it’s given to people who are already in the OBE at some lower level, like an MBE.
In the 2020 list were:
- 793 MBEs
- 429 MBEs
- 195 CBEs
- 15 Knights and 12 Dames (either of the top levels – it wasn’t specified; I assume level two)
- 2 Knight Bachelors
The closest American equivalent is the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is given to about 10 people each year.