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.
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.