Humble Pie

Did I miss something? Has there been a change that has yet to reflect in how we define the word “humble”? It still means to be “modest” or “having a feeling of insignificance,” right? Then how come the acceptance speech for every award has to include some variation of the word “humble”?

It’s not like “humble” is an article like “the” or a conjunction like “and” or a preposition like “of”—you know, the words that find their way into everyday sentences because it would be impossible to speak without them. “Humble” is not grammatically essential. It is common but not ubiquitous in our parlance. It is only used in one cliché—when someone emerges from “humble beginnings.” So why does “humble” appear in award acceptance speeches about as often as the word “I”?

Barack Obama isn’t the only one “humbled” by receiving a major award. Let’s just look at the last MVP winners in the three major sports:

National League, Albert Pujols: “I’m just humbled.”

American League, Joe Mauer: “I’m real humbled by it.”

NFL, Peyton Manning: “I’m very humbled and grateful to be honored with this award.”

NBA, LeBron James: “It’s another humbling experience.”

Sports stars aren’t alone in being humbled by the awards they receive. Remember the Oscars?

Best Director, Kathryn Bigelow: “And for me, how humbling it was for me to be in that company, in that conversation. So I have to say, for me, it’s a humbling experience.”

But everyday people wouldn’t admit to being “humbled,” right?

Arthur Ashe Courage Award winner for the ESPYs, The Thomas Family: “Our family is humbled and honored to be selected.”

Now, to me, you’re humbled when you discover that you have overrated yourself—when there is a dissonance between your own self-conception (up here) and others’ conception of you (down lower). A player that expects to go high in a professional draft but ends up going much lower than anyone expected is humbled by that experience. He knows he needs to work harder than he thought. Going from a small high school where I was the smartest person to a college where I decidedly was not was humbling; I learned that my intelligence wasn’t exactly unique.

But winning an award? That’s not humbling at all! If anything, it’s the opposite of humbling, because you discover that the dissonance between your self-conception and others’ conception of you is in the opposite direction, that you in fact are better than you thought you were. It’s an aggrandizing experience.* Many things in life are humbling; winning an award is not.

*And believe me, I know, having been named to the All-Tournament team of the 1999 Junior Varsity Snowball Classic at Mount Carmel Elementary School. My head was pretty big for at least a week.

But I suppose you can’t say that in a speech. You can’t come out and thank yourself as Carmelo Anthony once did at the ESPYs or say you’re the king of the world like James Cameron or anything like that that reveals your true feelings about yourself. So you have to rely on a nice adjective that hints at self-awareness while revealing a lack of linguistic insight. And let’s face it: “Humbled” is a nice P.R. word that works great in a headline, even if it doesn’t make any sense.

Because you can feel a lot of different emotions when you win an award, but “humbled” isn’t one of them.

14 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Josh on May 11, 2010 at 9:21 AM

    Totally agree. This use of “humbled” has annoyed me for awhile. Besides the concern of the word being used incorrectly, it tends to reflect some sort of background presumption that there’s something wrong with being proud of your accomplishment which I find bothersome.

    But how did this P.R. use of “humbled” evolve? I think Bigelow’s quote probably illuminates how; she says: “And for me, how humbling it was for me to be in that company, in that conversation. So I have to say, for me, it’s a humbling experience.” This is the best of the uses. She felt humbled, presumably, because she felt she was the worst among the group, that she paled in comparison, but by some sort of luck or chance she somehow made into the group. The OED’s first definition of the adjective (sorry, Tim) “humbled” is “Having a low estimate of one’s importance, worthiness, or merits; marked by the absence of self-assertion or self-exaltation; lowly: the opposite of proud.” I think it’s ridiculous that being nominated for an Academy Award, winning MVP should make one feel this way, but I actually think that this IS what some people ARE trying to imply. Just saying “I’m humbled”, though, doesn’t convey that to that to us.


  2. Posted by doc on May 11, 2010 at 10:57 AM

    I am humbled to be allowed to post on such a prestigious blog. By the way, my pet peeve word is “reticent”. It is often used synonymously with “reluctant”, but actually refers to being reserved or inclined to keep silent (antonym – loquacious). I actually did find one 3rd definition that equated it with “reluctant”, but I am reticent to expound on my emotional response to this shocking revelation!


  3. Posted by John S on May 11, 2010 at 2:07 PM

    I don’t mean to humble you guys, but I need to point out where you go wrong:

    While you guys are right that “humbled” has become primarily a PR word, you and Josh are both wrong to say that this use of the word is somehow incorrect. It is a perfectly acceptable use of the word’s meanings. As you point out, the definition of “humbled” reflects a feeling of unworthiness or inferiority. But such a feeling doesn’t ONLY come from, as Tim says, the discovery that you have overrated yourself. It can also come from changing the class of comparison. As your example shows, Tim, you were “humbled” when you went from a small high school to a prestigious national college, because you graduated from one class of comparison to a higher one. Similarly, all the uses reflect similar changes. LeBron James, for example, may think he’s pretty awesome when he’s comparing his talents to those of Mo Williams or Daniel Gibson, but it then becomes humbling when he is juxtaposed with Jordan or Larry Bird. Such comparisons are likely to warrant a “having a low estimate of one’s importance, worthiness, or merits.”


    • Posted by Josh on May 11, 2010 at 4:15 PM

      I think Doug’s addition below is helpful, but, John, you can’t mean that when someone just says “This is humbling” when one gets an award the use of the word’s meaning that I offer is obviously the use they intend especially since it probably shouldn’t be the modal feeling one gets when they get an award. Given how odd the modality of such a feeling is, it just doesn’t make sense to to say “I’m humbled” or “This is humbling” without additional context since the whole point of an award or victory is to differentiate you in a positive way from the rest of the crowd. Kathryn Bigelow, in this respect, at least a half-decent job explaining why she was humbled.


      • Posted by John S on May 11, 2010 at 4:28 PM

        I think you and Tim are really making a different point than you realize. You are not saying that people who win an award shouldn’t say they feel humbled; you are saying that they shouldn’t FEEL humbled. Otherwise how on Earth is the “modality of such a feeling” relevant? Just because you can’t understand why winning an award would make you feel humble doesn’t mean that others won’t feel that way (I also have no idea what you’re basing your conclusion about the “modal feeling one gets when they get an award” on: Have you done the necessary research and legwork for such a claim?). It’s telling that you demand an “explanation” for the feeling, a la Bigelow–presumably you wouldn’t need an explanation if the winners said, “I am proud” or “I am happy” because you can more easily relate to those emotions, but that doesn’t mean “this is humbling” is any less accurate or more in need of explanation. The explanation is obviously implicit.


    • Posted by Tim on May 11, 2010 at 5:05 PM

      John, I think there’s a difference between my comparison of being humbled–going from high school to college–and LeBron’s or any of the MVPs. It’s not as if I was humbled simply by being granted admission to Duke (like the athletes mentioned earning entry into the MVP pantheon); I was not. I wasn’t, as you say John, humbled by a change in the class of comparison. I was humbled because I had overrated myself. I understood going in that there would be more and smarter people around me, but I still expected to be among the smartest. It wasn’t a humbling experience until I got on campus.

      It’s not as if LeBron James or Peyton Manning or Albert Pujols experienced a change in the class of comparison, either. They had all previously won MVPs. Manning had already won as many as anyone ever had; he was already, in MVP terms, in a class by himself. Furthermore, let’s not amateurishly believe that LeBron James compared himself to Mo Williams and Daniel Gibson–the latter of whom has played 10 minutes in the playoffs. Since the moment he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high school junior, LeBron’s bases of comparison were not his teammates or even his contemporaries. It was always a question of whether he would be historically significant, and thus he has been compared to the Jordans and the Magics and the Birds for years. He himself has admitted as much in his explicitly stated goals to be a “global icon” and to be the first athlete to make a billion dollars.

      So what bothers me about this is, as Josh mentions, it all implies that being humbled is not just an acceptable way to feel at times like this, but the natural one, which by now you should realize, I don’t think is the case. It’s perfectly normal to feel pride in certain situations, and there shouldn’t be a stigma in expressing it. We should want honesty from our athletes, politicians, and directors, and we shouldn’t frown upon the ones, ahem Cameron, that do think highly of themselves (and often, deservedly so).

      P.S. Is it possible for me to come as any more arrogant in this post + comment?


      • Posted by John S on May 11, 2010 at 5:37 PM

        Tim, you’re obscuring the point. It doesn’t matter if you felt humbled upon being accepted to Duke or upon realizing that you weren’t the smartest one there. The fact is that you were humbled when you started comparing yourself to smarter people. The point at which you realized you had overrated yourself is the same point at which the class of comparison changed.

        The same thing holds for the assorted MVPs. Yes, they had won before, but with each additional win, the number of people in the “X-Time MVP” category shrinks. Just take Peyton’s example: He has more MVPs than anyone, but does that mean he is the best player ever? Or that he has accomplished as much as, say, Tom Brady? No, and those comparisons are likely to humble him. Similarly, every player who has won consecutive NBA MVP awards, save Steve Nash, has a championship to his name. LeBron, right now, does not. Thus, he is humbled. The goals you ascribe to him (making a billion dollars, becoming a global icon, reaching the class of Bird/Magic/Jordan) only further this point: He has, thus far, accomplished significantly less than them, and so that comparison is inevitably humbling.

        Basically, you can feel humble anytime you feel inadequate or inferior, and that almost always necessitates some kind of comparison, either to a previous perception you had of yourself, or to another great, to whom you often feel inferior. Once again, you and Josh don’t seem to be saying that the use of “humble” is incorrect, just that you don’t think these people SHOULD feel humble. In general, I do agree that pride should be acceptable in certain scenarios and that the PR value of being humble is overrated, but I don’t think that means it’s a mistake to feel humble or to SAY you feel humble.


        • Posted by Douglas on May 12, 2010 at 1:30 AM

          I’m with John on this one…Tim and Josh, it seems as if you’re really suggesting that all or most humility is false (or in your terms “odd” and not “honest”).

          First, if someone feels pride but doesn’t want to express it, that’s not necessarily an indication of an oppressive social stigma. Even if someone is appealing to a “PR” purpose, this doesn’t equate to dishonesty. If opponents truly hate one another, for example, should the victor make a point of honestly describing how wonderful it felt to best his enemy, or to attack his opponent’s character? Maybe this should be more acceptable than it is, but to suggest that refraining from such behavior is therefore unacceptable doesn’t make sense. It’s just off base to think that someone can’t have their own legitimate, “natural” reasons for not expressing pride.

          More to the point, pride and humility can coexist. We might presume that the first person to meaningfully say that they “felt humbled” after a victory was simply expressing a new perspective on their situation. To use John’s example: Yes, I’m proud that I won MVP, but it’s also humbling when you think about how many other people have accomplished that feat. There’s no strange “modality of feeling” going on here; it’s a rather normal complexity, and people are free to choose to express that as broadly or as narrowly as they please.

          As an afterthought, there are also many other reasons for someone to feel humbled that can exist outside the context of peer comparison or the broader scope of the sport or activity. If my sole goal in life was to win a gold medal in the Olympics, I might feel humbled upon achieving it because I realize that I now lack purpose or fulfillment. Thus, even if I’m objectively better in every way than any competition and have a host of reasons to feel proud within the context of my sport, they may not be as significant to me as the one criteria that makes me feel humble.


        • Posted by Tim on May 12, 2010 at 10:55 AM

          I think the timing of my being humbled is important. In one instance, it would have been motivated by a success or an achievement; in the other, real one, by a kind of failure. This seems significant.

          You know when would have been the right time for LeBron to say he was “humbled”? Last night, after a 32-point home playoff loss in which he shot 3-for-14. That’s a far more humbling event than winning any MVP. But no, here’s what he said: “I spoil a lot of people with my play. When you have three bad games in seven years, it’s easy to point them out.”


          • Posted by Douglas on May 12, 2010 at 3:42 PM

            Yeah, as I said in my initial post, I don’t readily grant the benefit of the doubt to most of the people you mentioned…I think in particular LeBron James generally has no idea what he’s talking about, as illustrated in this passage below, excerpted from this article about James being named to the first defensive team (found via a curious google search:

            “It was a big goal of mine to become a better defensive player,” James said. “I decided to take a little more onus on that end of the floor. It’s humbling and a great feat for myself because I really enjoy that side of the floor. I thank the coaches for seeing that I picked up my game on that end. It’s humbling.

            “It’s all about pride. I just take pride on that end of the court. I’m just as locked in on that end as I am on the offensive end,” he said.

            Certainly not very articulate…of course, you can’t ever say a black guy is articulate because that’s just racist.

  4. Posted by Douglas on May 11, 2010 at 3:53 PM

    In theory I agree with John…in theory. Tim, I don’t think any of the examples you provided display any type of incorrect usage of the word, but I would also question John’s generous assumption (which maybe he isn’t really making) that the speakers really know what they’re saying. I think that, given the context of many of their remarks, what they mean to say is that they “remain humble” in spite of the experience, which is the PR thing to say. I’m sure some of them are trying to convey the effects of a new class of comparison, but I wouldn’t readily grant that nuance to the intention of the speakers in each of Tim’s examples.


    • Posted by John S on May 11, 2010 at 4:19 PM

      Yeah, that’s a valid point, which is why I think the crux of Tim’s point is that it’s mainly a PR word. I don’t necessarily think LeBron James and Joe Mauer have given much thought to the intricacies of thew word’s meaning, but that doesn’t mean they are using the word incorrectly. There is a very acceptable and correct interpretation of what they say.


  5. Posted by Wey on May 11, 2010 at 7:24 PM

    Glad to see you’ve sold your soul to google…


  6. Posted by Peter on November 23, 2010 at 7:02 PM

    THANK YOU for calling this out! It drives me nuts. Other things that drive me nuts…

    – People that say “walla” instead of “voila”. There, I said it!

    – When people say that they “literally” did something, when they merely did it figuratively.

    – When people say “utilize”. It’s almost always used incorrectly. Ironically, they seem to have utilized the word “utilize”. Why can’t people just go ahead and “use” things anymore?

    – BMW owners


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