(What Matt Lauer Got Right! The Proper use of the word “Humility.”) Disgraced NBC anchor Matt said, “…The last two days have forced me to take a very hard look at my own troubling flaws. It’s been humbling. I am blessed to be surrounded by the people I love.”)
Oh Lord it’s Hard to be Humble, When You’re Perfect in Every Way
“Humility is the worst form of conceit, Mister Bond.” -Ernst Stavro Blofeld to 007 in “Diamonds Are Forever”
Blofeld! And some people quote Shakespeare!
This essay is nothing more than a study of the use of the word “humbled.” I absolutely mean no offense, toward the people who have used the word and the related expressions in the past in the manner I wish to dissect. I just think the word is misused? Misunderstood? Abused?
I was perusing the worldly events and came across yet another statement by someone winning something, and then being…humbled…and that confused me. “I am humbled,” they say. They won Wimbledon and they are…humbled?
Most often this is from someone who is being complimented and wants to brag to the world about the compliment and yet, at the same time, tries to offset the obvious, blatant brag, with a claim of suddenly being “humbled” by the compliment and, or by the person paying the compliment.
“I am bragging! Oh, but I am humbled, so I am not bragging.”
- Example 1: “Pete Smith said I was terrific. Pete Smith is famous. I am humbled.”
- Example 2: “Members of the Academy. Thank you for this award. I am humbled.”
- Example 3: “People seek my advice from all over the world. I am humbled.”
No you’re not. You actually want to light off a firecracker. Instead you stick out a pouty lip and claim you are humbled. Every time I hear that someone was humbled by this or that uplifting compliment or award, it causes a rhetorical stumble-step, a hiccup in my brain. Make no mistake I am no George Safire, I humbly admit. I can’t help but think, is this the proper use of the word “humbled?” I mean, people who are really humbled are actually being put down in their place, a lower place, aren’t they? And, that place is lower than where they started? Not uplifted, but down-played. Ever hear of “forced to eat humble pie?”
If you won these accolades, actually you are not really humbled. If Pete Smith is great, and he thinks you are great, or people all around the world think you are an expert, or you won the Oscar, Emmy, Beanie or Whammy, then you should be described with number of adjectives. Better words like happy. Or, proud. Beaming. Arrogant. Amazed. Bedazzled. Grateful. Confused. Undeserving, Surprised or Shocked. Bragging. Uplifted even! Certainly uplifted. And yes, you might accept this uplifting moment with a bit of that old, ‘aw shucks’ humility. “Twas nothing!” Or, how about ‘I was lucky.’ You may act with humility, but you are not humbled. You are not eating that crappy old, nasty old humble pie.
Humbled might derive from an abstract, general form of the word humility, but it doesn’t exactly live up to the definition of humility. Humility is the quality of being modest. Humility, in various interpretations is connected with notions of ego-less-ness. (Unless you are as observant on human nature as Ernst Stavro Blowfield – the head of Spectre who knows that a monk is ego-less and we mere mortals like James Bond exist in a continuum between ego-less-ness and ego-mania. We are all just throwing mental darts at the ego chart line.)
Humbled is a word used differently. It is officially defined by Webster as:
- 1: Lower someone in dignity or importance: “I knew he had humbled himself to ask for my help.”
- 2: Decisively defeat (another team or competitor, typically one that was previously thought to be superior).
- 3: To act very humble when one is shown to be wrong.
- 4: To be forced to admit that you are wrong and to say you are sorry.
- 5: Having a feeling of insignificance, inferiority, subservience, etc.
- 6: Low in rank, importance, status, quality, etc.; lowly of humble origin; a humble home.
I am not alone in this interpretation. Look at the longer list of definitions supporting my version. People have written into a language webpage with “common folk” definitions of words use these for humbled:
“A humbling experience is like a person who lives in a developed nation, like the U.S., and lives a really good life. They have more than enough money, everything they need plus all they want. Then going to an undeveloped nation where people are poor and starving, children are dying, etc. And in seeing the suffering of others you realize how lucky you are in the life that you have and how things are for others. You could call that a humbling experience.”
“It’s often used for people who are a bit arrogant about what they have (tangible or intangible) or are very self-important. And find out they are not so important.”
“Humbling experiences are often things that knock the arrogance and an over inflated view of self out of a person.”
When President Obama lost over 60 congressional seats in the 2010, mid-term elections, news reporters said the President was humbled by the loss. When the 2011 season Superbowl champs, New York Giants lost their 2012 season opener to the Dallas Cowboys, in the resultant press conference Head Coach Coughlin said he was humbled by the loss. Humbled because they lost, not won. These are accurate uses of the word.
Even if you find some weird little literary trick connecting the term humbled with an uplifting success, or as a way to hide what is really a brag, it is weird and confusing and you probably shouldn’t use it. Save the world a mental hiccup.
About two months after I first published this essay on the web a few years ago, a major magazine writer wrote an article about this VERY subject! And it proceeded thought by thought, too. I was not humbled with this replication. No, sir.
I would be humbled if someone proved my ideas about being humbled completely wrong. For example: “Pete Smith proved me dead wrong about my use of the word humbled. I am humbled by his correction that I am not as smart as I once thought. I now have gross, humble pie stains all over my shirt and pants.”
Get the hardcovers, paperbacks or ebooks here