Humble Pie

I love podcasts. One of my new favourites is Hello Internet. The hosts, C.G.P.grey and Brady Haran got talking, on the latest episode ,about the word ‘humble‘ and how something weird seems to have happened to it.
Brady notes that the meaning of ‘humble’ (or more specifically ‘humbling’ and ‘humbled’) has changed. For example, last night according to many newspapers World Cup Champions Spain were ‘humbled’ by the 5-1 drubbing that Holland dished out. Humble which is etymologically linked to ‘humiliate’ (Latin:humilis) and meaning ‘brought low’ or ’caused to feel less important’ makes a lot of sense here as Spain went from being possible finalists to possibly not making it out of their group.
However, in the same week as this World Cup upset, her Majesty has been dishing out MBEs and OBEs to the worthy. Many of these folk, like NHS surgeon das Kumar have spoken about how humbled they feel. Host Brady takes issue with this usage pointing out that surely you don’t feel low after winning an award, in fact you probably feel great! How can you be humbled by an award?
This ‘non-humble humble’ bothers Brady and he’s not alone. Paul Annett writes that nothing annoys him more than this misuse and Jerod Morris has written a blog post pleading with politicians to stop their ‘egregious, persistent  misuse’ of this phrase. Another blogger complains that it now means the opposite of what it’s supposed to mean.

So is it a problem if a word has opposite meanings? No. ‘Literally’ means and has meant for over a hundred years, both literally and figuratively though this word is sadly still problematic for mavens. while,’literally’ face approbation, other auto-acronyms (Janus words) like ‘dust’ (apply and remove dust) and ‘sanction’ (allow, disapprove of) slip by unnoticed.

There is also the question of whether a word should always continue to mean what it once meant. As I’ve written about here, again the answer is no. Those who suggest words, like decimate for example, should continue to mean ‘destroy one in 10’ are committing the etymological fallacy

The only language constant is language change but it’s unsettling to witness language changing under our feet. Semantic change can happen for many reasons. A word suddenly gets a new lease of life when attached to a new concept or technology (think keyboard in the 1980s) or becomes unfashionable or politically incorrect (the Euphemism treadmill tends to be a solid engine of linguistic change). In this case, my guess is that something else happened.

The word ‘peruse’ originally meant ‘to read deeply’ and now it means ‘to skim’ and I would guess this happened for two reasons. firstly the word started to fall out of fashion. Google’s Ngram backs this up:


Secondly, with the decline in the use of a word and as we learn most of our vocabulary implicitly there may well have been confusion over the meaning of phrases like “he perused the book” until an alternative, opposite definition gradually replaced the original.

Something similar could have happened to ‘humble’ as Ngrams shows a similar decline in its use:

It’s not unreasonable to imagine the same forces that changed ‘peruse’ changing ‘humbling’. But if ‘humble’ does have a new meaning, what exactly is it? When Obama claimed he was ‘humbled’ by winning the Noble Peace prize, what did he mean?

The new humble seems to be an extension of phrases like ‘humble opinion’, and ‘humble home’, that is, denoting ‘small and insignificant’. Thus ‘a humbling experience’ seems to be linguistic shorthand for something like ‘how could someone as  insignificant as me, deserve your praise/recognition.’ I would guess most people understand this to be what the speaker is trying to convey. However some, are wilfully(?) finding the phrase confusing. This is reminiscent of those  who pretend not to understand ‘non-literal “literally”‘ or claim that double negatives are confusing. 

Complaints about how ‘everyone is getting it wrong’ always tickle me. The complainants seem to believe they can stop the inevitable tide of language change. Surely when Morris writes of the new meaning of humble that “we hear so many athletes and public figures use it” he must realise the irony of suggesting it’s ‘wrong’. If everyone is using something, and everyone else is understanding what they say, then chances are this aint a battle you’re gonna win




3 thoughts on “Humble Pie

  1. I had this happen with \”refute\” as I used it to mean \”totally disprove\” and a friend told me it only meant \”to disagree with\” ….As you know, I am always keen to know there is a right and wrong to learn and then be superior about but the dictionary told us it has both meanings and I suppose, after reading your post, that I had learned/absorbed the changed meaning and she had learned it at an earlier stage (she's older than me and from another English speaking country). For some reason it makes me a bit sad, as if words lose their potency in some way when this happens. I mourn the loss of the distinction disinterested and ininterested used to have. I know I have no grounds to other than sentimentality but I know I'm on only sentimental grounds to do so!


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