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.