Where did humility go?

Pick up any news article that deals with the bestowing of some sort of honor, be it the Super Bowl championship, winning the presidency of the United States, being named a beauty queen or being appointed hallway monitor at your high school. It doesn’t matter.

What these supposed honors have in common is the choice of words the awardees use. Invariably, you’ll run across “humbled,” as in “I’m humbled to have been elected president.”

Let’s parse the word. Let’s examine its usage and examine why people have virtually reversed the meaning of the word. Let’s say somebody wins a mayoral election and says, “I’m extremely humbled to have been chosen as your mayor.” That sentence will doubtless be followed by the grandiose plans Señor or Señora Mayor wishes to put in place.

Most post-election speeches contain a smattering of plans, but before getting to the vast improvements, the audience generally needs to hear how “humbled” the winner has become. Most dictionaries define “humbled” as “marked by meekness or modesty, not arrogant or prideful.” Another alternative meaning given is “submissive respect,” as in a humble apology. Yet another alternate meaning says someone “humble” is “low in rank, quality, or station, unpretentious or lowly.”

So now that we’ve parsed the word in every way possible, we begin to look at the word not as a way of bragging but of displaying humility.

How did that self-deprecating word come to fit in so nicely in every political acceptance speech we’ve heard this year? My belief, based mainly on the sheer repetition of the word, is that some famous person used “humbled” in the context of promising to be the public’s humble servant.
But let’s not forget that a servant also cleans up the mess.

The use of humble must have been uttered by some prominent figure whose followers said, “Hmm. I like that word,” and as a result fans adopt the word and repeat it often.

“Humbled” has a host of antonyms, such as “base,” “lowly,” “unworthy” and “modest.” Why, then have so many people christened the word with an opposite meaning? For example, former football great Matt Millen, upon joining the NFL network team, said, “It is very exciting to be joining . . . an outstanding crew of professionals on the Thursday Night Football telecasts. “I am humbled.”

No, Matt — you have it wrong. Why don’t you call your new job an honor, a great privilege or a dream-come-true?

In one of Shakespeare’s plays, “King Henry VIII,” the Queen says to Henry, “I have been to you a true and humble wife.”

It is clear that their tumultuous marriage has caused the queen great unhappiness. She uses the word correctly, and it’s not filled with braggadocio, as if she’d scored the winning touchdown in overtime in Sunday’s Super Bowl game.

Even super model Christie Brinkley said she is “humbled” to have her photo appear in the latest Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.

By whatever yardstick one uses, being humbled is not an enviable position. Listen for the word in the context of any speech in which the person being honored claims to be humbled.

Some readers may recall that on several occasions I’ve mentioned that sometimes I hear or read an unusual word. Well, that word seems to be repeated on every newscast, in every newspaper and in every country-western tune on radio.

I’ve written about the misuse of this word in past columns, yet the problem persists.

• • •

On the Internet, I found a list of items that make the typical English teacher look for another job. This list is credited to Eric K. Auld.

  1. A comma splice walks into a bar, it has a drink and then leaves.
  2. A dangling modifier walks into a bar. After finishing a drink, the bartender asks it to leave.
  3. A question mark walks into a bar?
  4. Two quotation marks “walk into” a bar.
  5. A gerund and an infinitive walk into a bar, drinking to drink.
  6. A bar was walked into by the passive voice.
  7. Three intransitive verbs walk into a bar. They sit. They drink. They leave.

• • •

I received zero replies to last week’s Biblical question: Was there a slightly overweight male present at the nativity in Bethlehem? If so, please name him.

The answer is clear; it’s contained in the hymn, “Silent Night,” and it identifies the slightly overweight man as “Round John Virgin,” who apparently stood next to the “Mother and Child.”

• • •

As mentioned last week, the quality of the Bible questions made the challenge too easy. So I promised to present questions at the post-doctoral level.

Here’s one: When the tribes of Judah and Simeon fought the Canaanites, what did they do to Adoni-bezek?

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