Saturday, June 28, 2008

You Still Mean That?

I know William Safire has already written a column about this, and some readers of the blog have noted it as well, but the fact remains -- the word humbling has been badly distorted in popular American speech.

How, you ask?

Well, everytime someone wins an Oscar, a Grammy, or the blue-ribbon prize at the Clamath County bake-off, he or she feels the need to make an acceptance speech about how "humbling" it is to have won.

Well, according the dictionary, humbling is an adjective meaning, "Causing awareness of your shortcomings."

Yesterday, I was at quarters (that's an all-hands meeting) where a Captain was receiving a Meritorious Service Medal (that's a big deal). After being given the floor by the Admiral, the Captain made no fewer than five references to how "humbling" it was to have received the medal.


I *get* what he meant to say. When you think about the great things someone did to receive something, you feel humble to be put in the same league. When you win an Oscar for best supporting actor, and then you start thinking about Sidney Poitier, you feel humble.


But winning the award is an honor. It doesn't shame, embarrass, or humiliate you, so winning it isn't humbling.

If you tripped over the stairs on your way to the podium, that would be humbling.

If you stuttered during your acceptance speech, let go a swear word, or if a body part came out of your clothing unintentionally, that could also be humbling.

A nine year-old girl kicked the crap out of me at Lowell Tae Kwon Do on Shattuck Street last night. That was humbling.

Winning an Oscar, earning a Meritorious Service Medal, or earning second place in the freestyle division at the sock-hop festival, however, is not.


Shannon said...

Lol!!! Absolutely great point.There is something special about being humbled. Its painful but enlightening.
Nine years old? Ouch, thats brutal.
Just kidding!
with love,

KD said...

I totally agree! Something that Outward Bound instructors say that really bothers me is, "It was really impactful!" I guess that it is a real word, but is it really that hard to phrase it, "This had a great impact on the students..." instead? Language seems to become a trend in our community.

Also, in a hyper effort to be PC, some folks have changed the word "craftsmanship" to "craftspersonship."

How annoying! I think a student on a Florida course quipped back, "Hey, look at the persongroves and personatees." (Mangroves and manatees.)

Shannon said...


Impactful..that sounds painful. The PC movement is annoying! 2 years ago all of the stores in Tucson banned the use of the phrase Merry Christmas, employees weren't even allowed to say it to customers. Instead the stores used 'Happy Holidays' so as not to offend the poor delicate patrons who would be appalled if an employee were to cheerfully greet them with the appropriate phrase to a nationally recognized holiday...hmmm, the person who complained about "Merry Christmas" is probably friends with the lady with a half million dollars worth of Mcdonald's coffee burns.

The New Englander said...


Glad you guys are fans of the language stuff, too! All the examples you guys gave sound like people taking something generally accepted and making it awkward. The 'personatee' thing is a good spoof on the overall silliness, for sure..

..and yes, getting beaten up by a nine year-old is always humbling (unless, I guess, if you're eight) but I've come to accept that for an adult picking up martial arts, it's like the Billy Madison dodgeball scene, only in reverse..