Misuse of the word ‘humble’

Nothing gets my back up more than somebody using the word “humble” to mean exactly the opposite of its definition.

The most high profile case of this that I can think of Jonathan Ive saying last year he was “humbled” to receive a knighthood. Today I was reminded of it when I read that Casey Hopkins found it “humbling” that people generously funded his Kickstarter project to the tune of $1.4 million. (apologies, Casey – there are many, many examples of this… yours was just in the right place at the right time to prompt this blog post!)

“Humble” means to have a low estimate of one’s importance, or to lack dignity. So to be “humbled”, is to feel unimportant as a result of something which may be described as “humbling”, or undignifying.

If you were at the top of your game but luck dealt you a bad hand and you ended up begging on the street, that would be humbling. If you were at the top of your game but you spent a few days on the streets to raise awareness for a homeless charity, you may find the experience to be humbling in a rewarding, learning-from-it sense.

But to have your sense of self-importance boosted by being awarded a knighthood, or to have your self-confidence reassured by the support of your peers is the complete opposite.

The only way a knighthood could be humbling is if you thought you deserve to be God, but were only awarded a knighthood.

And receiving $1.4 million in donations through Kickstarter might be humbling if you firmly believed you deserved to reach your target of $10 million.

Actually, I can think of one thing that annoys me more, but you could probably care less…

8 thoughts on “Misuse of the word ‘humble’

  1. Wouldn’t you say the phrase “I’m humbled…” when an award is bestowed upon you, is really a form of exaggerated politeness? In other words, it would be the equivalent to saying, “I’m unworthy.” There is a long history of this kind of behavior, in many cultures. While some people may not be aware of the origin of “humbled” in this context, I don’t think it’s truly a misuse of the word.

  2. Great point, though I disagree that it means having a low view of yourself. As C.S.Lewis says “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less”. It’s more about having a self-less personality, putting others above yourself and not seeking attention or praise for yourself. Either way, this ‘humbled’ usage you talk about is definitely weird.

  3. I agree. I find it hard to see how receiving a knighthood would stir up feelings of humbleness/humility. Being thrown into prison for some misdemeanor and stripped of one’s knighthood…now that might well be humbling.

    Even the Queen is now at it, saying in June 2012 that “”The events that I have attended to mark my Diamond Jubilee have been a humbling experience. It has touched me deeply to see so many thousands of families, neighbours and friends celebrating together in such a happy atmosphere.”

  4. Yeh, I do agree on this one. For some things meanings can change and I accept that, but “I’m humbled” usually suggests wanting to appear zen, I agree that it’s probably the ‘loser’ that *can* learn humility.

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