Monthly Archives: March 2016

How “humbled” took pride

Something odd is going on with the verb “humble”. If you check a dictionary, you’ll find that it means something like “cause to feel unworthy or insignificant”, but people often use it to mean something that looks like the opposite.

Here are three recent examples from the Guardian:

Hilton Als, winner of a nonfiction award, said he was “gobsmacked and humbled” by the prize

Hunt said that “on a personal level I am genuinely humbled to receive this award…”

“I am humbled by the support of Caf’s executive committee and tremendously encouraged by the unanimous decision to support my bid for the office of Fifa president,” Sheikh Salman said

Here, “humbled” seems to mean something like “honoured”, “flattered” or “proud”, but also conveying that the speaker is in no way arrogant. There may (in the first two, but not the third) be an implication that the speaker is not worthy of this honour.

This semantic backflip hasn’t drawn much attention. As well as all the dictionaries I’ve checked, the usage books on my shelf don’t mention the issue, and nor do the several style guides I’ve looked at online.

I did find a few articles and blog posts about it, from the last three years.

Meghan Daum scorns the trend for making humble “the new smug”.

Julian Baggini ponders the etiquette: “we live in a society in which we are all officially equal… So what can you say if you are surrounded by adoring fans or loyal subjects? … You proclaim that you are humbled, bringing yourself down to earth just as others raise you above it.”

But Louise Barder wrestles with the contradictions: “So if you’re being elevated in society’s estimation by receiving an honor, you should logically feel the opposite of humbled — even if it does feel undeserved or uncomfortable. … Technically, you can’t really feel humbled — ie. brought down to a lower level — unless you already think highly of yourself.”

And Patricia T O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman try to connect this usage to the accepted meaning: “So the use of ‘humble’ by a victorious politician isn’t incorrect, if he means he’s proud of winning yet humbled by the responsibilities of office.” But I’m not convinced: usually what’s said to be “humbling” is the decision to give the status, not the implications of having it. And if what you’ve received is an award or just praise, there are no responsibilities of office.

But I think there is a connection between the two meanings.

An age-old question

One of the first things I wonder when I think about a disputed usage is: how old is it? The answer is usually: much older than I would have guessed.

Here are some of the examples I found by searching Google Books:

Norman McLeod, 1846: “I appreciate the delicate and considerate kindness, which has placed me in this Chair. I am grateful for it: I trust I may say, I am humbled by it: I never will forget it.”

Charles J Hempel, 1861: “‘Gentlemen,’ answered he, ‘I am humbled by this generosity, but I yield to your request. Your wishes shall be gratified.’”

Atlantic Monthly, 1931: “If anyone wishes to overhear the sermon, I am flattered. If anyone profits by it, I am humbled. I should of course be gratified to think that I had illuminated the path that other young people must travel”

Christopher Durang, 1975: “I am humbled by your thinking well of me.”

Tamunoemi Sokari David-West, 1981: “I am as a matter of fact doubly humbled: humbled by the kind gestures of the organisers of these lectures, and also very much humbled by the enormity of the subject selected for me”

That last one is intriguing because it mixes two senses of “humbled”: one meaning touched and honoured, the other meaning daunted and unworthy.

And I found more examples of people explicitly claiming to feel humbled at the same time as feeling proud or honoured:

Horace Walpole, 1785: “I am flattered by it, as perhaps one always is, when rated too highly, at least that is the common opinion; though I confess I imagine that I am humbled in my own eyes, when I feel conscious of not deserving what is said of me.”

Proceedings of the 34th Annual Encampment of the Department of Ohio, 1900: “I cannot express to you my feelings in any sense unless I would say I am humbled and proud.”

Wisconsin Congregational Church Life, 1950: “The confidence of the Conference in me shown by this act is a great honor, and I am humbled by it.”

These examples convey the same sort of meaning as the previous ones. What varies is whether the sense of honour and pride is mentioned separately from “humbled” or incorporated into it.

Why this seemingly paradoxical combination? I blame religion.

Holy humility, Batman!

A lot of the references I found to being humbled were religious, to do with people abasing themselves before God, ashamed of their sinful nature, conscious of their cosmic tininess. And yet, many of these quotes oozed a sense of pride in their virtuous humility – because being humble is the path to salvation.

For instance:

William Wilberforce, 1793: “How mysterious, how humbling, are the dispensations of God’s providence!”

Lydia Ann Barclay, 1842: “Oh, it is by the humbling touches of the Lord’s power, and the renewings of His grace, that we are at any time quickened with fresh life from Him”

George Washington Hosmer, 1882: “I feel a sense of God upon my heart. I am humbled by a deep and vivid consciousness of dependence and recognition of wondrous favor.”

Signs of the Times, ‪1901: “I hope that I am humbled by the sweet and loving spirit which God bestows, and this at times gives me great comfort.”

These people are keen to show off their humility at receiving God’s spiritual gifts. And this is essentially the same as what the “humbled” award-winners and vote-winners are doing. They’ve been given something that they’re glad to have, but it’s something that depends on approval – of the public, of the judges, of God. They know that keeping that approval depends on avoiding arrogance. So in their moment of triumph they declare their humility.

Whether any of them mean it or not is a question I shall have to refer to the man upstairs.

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What words “should” mean and what they actually mean

Steve Finan of the Sunday Post has had a rant about “decimate”. He insists on the “reduce by 10%” meaning.

It’s a word I struggle to care about, so rather than get into the details I’ll point you towards good posts by Jan Freeman and Ben Zimmer.

And here are a few historical facts; you can decide for yourself which, if any, we should care about when deciding how to use the word today:

  • 1600: First recorded use in English of “decimate”, meaning to punish a unit of Roman soldiers by killing 10% of them
  • 1663: First recorded use of “decimate” to mean damage, destroy or remove a large part of – not necessarily 10%
  • 1868: First recorded complaint about the non-10% use of “decimate”

What interests me more than this word is Finan’s beautiful display of the I-know-best attitude to language:

Before anyone points out: “But the dictionary says…” the dictionary is wrong. Dictionaries are great on how words are spelled; they are unreliable on what a word should mean because they insist on giving definitions based on what the public is actually saying rather than what it should be saying.

This is like complaining that maps are unreliable because they insist on showing the actual geography of towns instead of the way the streets should have been laid out. Or that instruction manuals are unreliable because they insist on telling you how devices actually work instead of how they should have been designed.

Dictionaries tell you what words mean. Words are not abstract units of pure meaning but tools that a community uses to communicate. If you want to communicate, you need to use them the way the community does, not the way you think they ought to be used. This isn’t about being correct or incorrect: it’s about success or failure. Insisting on a notion of correctness that others don’t share is a sure route to failure.

And the ways people use words change.

Finan protests that he’s totally OK with language change in principle:

I enjoy seeing the language evolve. I’m no stick-in-the-mud. Awful used to mean full of awe; nice used to mean stupid.

But he tries to explain a logical, objective criterion for which kind of language change is good and which is wrong:

But there is no good reason to change the meaning of decimated. We already have perfectly adequate words to describe damage. If we accept that decimated no longer means reduce by one in 10, we are left without a word for being reduced by a tenth. English will have become less expressive as a means of communication merely because ignorant people have been copying one another.

I have a few problems with this.

Firstly, the awkward, pedantic point (sorry, sorry) that nobody is proposing to change the meaning of “decimated”. The change happened 350 years ago. I suppose Finan could say that he is proposing change by wanting to scrap a long-established meaning, but that wouldn’t quite fit his argument.

Secondly, he thinks words shouldn’t acquire new meanings when we already have other words with those meanings. But when “awful” and “nice” changed (both during the 18th century), their new meanings were already well-covered. Finan ought to damn these new-fangled mistakes, but instead he approves. I suspect that in his heart he doesn’t really think the existence of synonyms is “wasteful and pointless”, as he describes the common usage of “decimate”. I suspect that his argument is just a way to rationalise a pet peeve.

Thirdly, if having a word with a certain meaning is really so useful to people, they’ll keep that meaning alive. But most people don’t go around reducing things by a tenth all that often. That sense of “decimate” has largely fallen into disuse. But in any case, we don’t desperately need a single word when we have several perfectly clear phrases that mean reduce by a tenth, such as “reduce by a tenth”.

If you want to talk about reducing things by a tenth, saying “decimate” may not be effective. So many people understand it the other way that you’re likely to be misunderstood. You can harrumph all you like about being right, but you’ll be wrong. Judged against the only yardstick that matters – making your meaning clear – you’ll fail.

As I said, “decimate” isn’t that interesting. But in Finan’s eyes, the problem isn’t just about losing this one word. The whole language is at risk!

Where shall we end up if we accept the errors people make as new meanings? Soon, everything will mean anything and nothing will also mean anything.

Oh, please.

After centuries, even millennia of change there’s no prospect of everything meaning anything and nothing meaning anything. And there never will be. Most linguistic innovations meet with incomprehension and die a quick death. Some recur but stay on the fringes of the language. A few, if people find them useful, get picked up and become mainstream.

The discipline of market forces, not the edicts of a self-appointed elite, will make sure English remains as expressive as we need it to be.

This history of language is a slow journey with no destination. What matters is that we travel together.

Grammar haiku win / Win win win win win win win / Did I mention win?

After four glorious years of failure, I’ve won the annual Grammar Day Tweeted Haiku Contest!

Organised by the American Copy Editors Society, the contest is pretty self-explanatory: you tweet a haiku about grammar, and then you tweet half a dozen more, and then maybe one of them turns out to be kind of OK. And apparently it did:

I also took fifth place with this one:

So I guess that means that on average I’m third?

Anyway, I’m thrilled to bits. My thanks to ACES (especially Mark Allen) and the judges (Adriana Cloud, Corrie Loeffler, Laura Poole, Carol Saller and Karen Yin), and my awe to the other entrants (as always, there are some truly brilliant little works of beauty and genius).

These are my efforts from previous years: