Wednesday, November 11, 2015

It humbles me to write this amazing blog post

You might have come across an article entitled, 'Literally now also means the same as figuratively'. As we were almost all taught in school, a literal meaning is the one which is actually true. But many modern people use the word to emphasise a statement and make their stories sound more impressive. (For example, 'I'm literally starving'.) Therefore, its informal meaning has now been added to English dictionaries, even though it means the opposite of the proper meaning it's held for centuries. So now I can say, 'My eyes literally popped out of my head when I read that article,' and nobody can say I'm wrong.

I understand that the evolution of languages over time is inevitable. If it stayed static, we might all be talking like Chaucer. Still, I can't help thinking it a shame to witness a change practically under my nose, which has clearly happened because of the ignorance of the general populance. So if enough uneducated people don't know what they're talking about, our language has to make a major shift to accommodate them? It could only happen with English, never with Maths. When I said something like that to my kids, they thought my attitude was a bit pompous. Whether or not that's true, I wonder what's next in store for English speakers.

I think I have a fair idea when I engage on social media and see people's use of the word 'humble.' I've noticed Facebook statuses like this over and over, not to mention published books.

'I felt humbled to win the netball grand final with such wonderful team members.'
'I was humbled to be awarded the grand prize for my highly acclaimed novel.'
'I felt so humbled to be included on a list with such illustrious members.'
'I felt so incredibly humbled to have my contribution selected over all others.' 

Now, in your mind, take that word 'humbled' and replace it with 'honoured' or 'proud' in each of those examples. To me, it seems to make much more sense that way. Surely 'humbled' in its truest sense, means belittled, taken down in size, diminished. I can understand somebody writing, 'I feel humbled when I look up at the stars and the vast Milky Way in our huge night sky.' King David actually did write something like that long ago. It makes perfect sense that he should be aware of his own relative puniness in comparison to the galaxy. But to state that you feel humbled because you won a contest is completely different. I believe it's another word we see used far more often in the opposite sense of what it really means.

How did this happen? Maybe we've unconsciously decided that using it helps us appear like modest, self-effacing people. 'I don't want to come across as if I'm boasting, so if I throw in the word 'humble', everyone will see how unassuming I am.' It seems to be the fashionable term for those who want to do a bit of showing off without appearing that they are. In his book, The End of Me, Kyle Idleman has coined the term 'humblebrag' for what he notices people doing on social media. 'I'm so tired of men giving me wolf whistles' or 'I wish little Johnny would stop asking me questions I can't answer. After all, he isn't even four yet.' I wouldn't be surprised if any sentence beginning with, 'I was humbled...' may well fit into this category.

I can imagine the dictionary some day including an extra definition of 'humble'.

1. Modest and aware of one's failings.
2. Low in rank or importance.
3. To be humiliated or made to apologise.
4. To be the recipient of recognition or honour. Used to express pride in a noteworthy achievement (informal).

When that day comes, the poor non-English speakers who are trying to learn our weird, fluid language will have another reason to scratch their heads and say, 'Huh, I don't get it. How can it mean both?'

If you enjoy this blog post and can see my point, I'll be gratified and honoured, but if enough people tell me I'm talking a load of hogwash or having a silly rant, then I'll be humbled.


  1. HI Paula

    I'm with you on 'literally' though I sort of understand the 'I am humbled ...' I think (at least originally) it expressed the feeling of being overwhelmed when winning an accolade, the feeling of a certain level of 'this can't be happening to me' and a heightened awareness that you didn't make it on your own, that a whole team of people made this possible for you - and so feeling 'humbled' (similar to the feeling when being a recipient of overwhelming generosity - or God's grace). So - I think it is a 'thing' and that it isn't necessarily just a 'humblebrag' - but I do think it has probably become a cliche - something people think they should say in these circumstances regardless of whether they feel it or not :)

    1. Hi Jenny,
      Yeah, I was discussing it with Andrew, and he mentioned the sense in which someone might be trying to get across the sense that their victory may have come on the backs of wonderful teammates, for whose support they feel humbled. I do get that, and maybe that helped contribute to the overuse we see.

    2. Yes and Yes. Both and. I agree. I am also tired of hearing everyone( including humble me) use the word ' like' in every sentence. Sometimes, like, twice in like, every sentence. Here's another one: in answer to for example the simple question ' How was your holiday?' Answer: ' Yeah No it was pretty good really.' Well, which - yes or no? I am also tired of the use of ' epic'. Particularly when it relates simply to a donut or a coffee. For heavens sake. I know, I know, I am already a woser.

    3. Hi Christine,
      I completely agree. I once challenged my teenage daughter to try to complete a sentence to her friends without a 'like' in it, and she was hard pressed. I wonder if the 'yeah, no' is just an Aussie thing, or if it's more widespread. It sounds a bit like us.
      And don't you think the boosting up of words like 'epic' means that we have to keep inventing or discovering new ones to express strong feelings, because we've watered down the ones we already have?
      Good to talk to someone who knows what we're talking about.

  2. It's natural for language to evolve, and our English language has been evolving for a very long time. There was a wonderful series when I was a teenager called The Story of English that showed the progression from the earliest roots of our language to today (or rather, 1980's "today"). I was so fascinated I ended up taking a linguistics course in college. Yes, language changes, and many of those changes happen because the lower classes adopted words or phrases. Even though we might not appreciate the changes in the thick of it, I think it is wonderful that we can be influenced so much by the world around us. Grammar police must hate it. :o)

    Peace and Laughter!

    1. Hi Cristina,
      That would have been awesome. I would have loved to have studied linguistics too. Perhaps it just shows that the common people hold weight where it matters (in language development). I find it all very fascinating.