Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Sonia Sotomayor and 'Humbling'

I should probably say right up front that this blog entry has nothing to do with the upcoming Sonia Sotomayor nomination process (I'm going to try to avoid it, because I think the whole thing is going to be very scripted and predictable, right down to the Rush Limbaugh soundbites, the faux outrage captured by Drudge headlines, and then the final confirmation vote in her favor). Neither is it going to be some kind of philosophical treatise on what it really means to be 'humble.'

Instead, it's going to be the quick rant of someone who probably would've become an English teacher if a few bumps in the earlier course of his life had shot him in a different direction.

Right after President Obama made his speech today announcing his decision to nominate Sonia Sotomayor for the bench of the Highest Court in the Land, she got up to speak.

And here's how she started: "Thank You, Mr. President, for the most humbling honor of my life."

A quick glance over to the dictionary tells me that 'humbling' means:

1. To curtail or destroy the pride of; humiliate.
2. To cause to be meek or modest in spirit.
3. To give a lower condition or station to; abase.

I should certainly hope that a Supreme Court nomination meets none of the above criteria!

I understand that the English language constantly morphs, and that word meanings constantly evolve, especially when you consider the slang used by young people. Just look at 'peruse,' 'notorious' or 'anxious' for examples of words whose proper usage is more often honored in the breach than in the observance.

Still, there's a curmudgeonly English teacher in me that just cringes every time some self-important athlete who achieves an inherently-meaningless milestone, actor who wins an Oscar, Golden Globe, or lesser-tier award, or politician who wins an appointment or election feels the need to bastardize the words 'humbling' or 'humbled.'

'Honor' and 'honored' are great word choices for such occasions, but you're humbled when something bad happens and it knocks you back down to size.

It would humbling, for instance, if your resume lists you as a fluent Indonesian linguist but then you fail the DLPT.

It would also be humbling to show off your creative side by writing your own wedding vows, but then awkwardly forgetting them during the service.

If you were convinced you WOULD win the Oscar, or would be nominated to the High Court -- and told all your friends and relatives it was coming -- but then you didn't, THAT would be humbling.

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