The Grammarphobia Blog

A humbling victory?

Q: Amid the spate of post-election coverage, a lot of politicians have described their victories as “humbling” experiences. My dictionary doesn’t support this use of “humble.” Is the usage correct?

A: To be “humble” is to be lowered. The word comes down to us from Latin, in which humilem means lowly or insignificant and humus means the ground or earth.

So one is “humbled,” or has a “humbling” experience, when reminded of one’s insignificance or lowliness.

And you’re right—we hear “humble” a lot at the end of election cycles. “Humble” is the opposite of proud, and many successful candidates say they’re “humbled” by the experience, or “proud yet humble” to find they’ve been elected.

This isn’t necessarily a misuse of the word “humble.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) defines the adjective “humble” this way:

“1. Marked by meekness or modesty in behavior, attitude, or spirit; not arrogant or prideful. 2. Showing deferential or submissive respect: a humble apology. 3. Low in rank, quality, or station; unpretentious or lowly: a humble cottage.”

So the use of “humble” by a victorious politician isn’t incorrect, if he means he’s proud of winning yet humbled by the responsibilities of office. But we have to say there’s something disingenuous about this “proud yet humble” formula.

It’s all too easy to call yourself “humble” when you’re on top. In fact, it’s really the loser who’s lowered or humbled, not the winner. But rarely does the loser say he’s been “humbled” by his loss. Such is politics.

The adjective “humble” has been around since about 1250, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. As we said, it means the opposite of proud or exalted—lowly, modest, unpretentious, of low esteem.

It’s often applied to people, as in phrases like “humble folk,” “humble suitor,” and “humble servant.” But it’s applied to things too, as in “humble thanks,” “my humble opinion,” “humble bed,” “humble origins,” “humble abode,” and so on.

The adjective gave rise to the verb “humble,” first recorded in the late 1300s.

The verb first meant “to render oneself humble” or “to assume a humble attitude,” as in bowing or doing obeisance, the OED says.

Later the verb came to mean “to render humble or meek in spirit” or “to cause to think more lowly of oneself,” the OED says.

An example is this passage from Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona (early 1590s): “Love’s a mighty Lord, / And hath so humbled me.”

Another meaning of the verb is “to lower in dignity, position, condition, or degree; to bring low, abase.”

The OED’s first citation for this sense of the word comes from William Caxton’s 1484 translation of Aesop’s Fables: “The prowde shall be allway humbled.”

Another example is from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus (1594): “All humbled on your knees.”

If the word “humiliate” occurs to you here, there’s a reason. It has the same Latin ancestry as “humble”—the Latin humilis, which is also derived from humus.

“Humiliate,” first recorded in the 1500s, means to humble or make low, and originally also meant to abase or prostrate oneself.

The earlier noun “humility” (circa 1315) originally meant the quality of being humble, “the opposite of pride or haughtiness,” says the OED.

No winning candidate wants to appear haughty or full of pride—unless of course the pride is leavened by “humility” or a sense of being “humbled.”

But one point is worth making. You can’t feel humbled—that is, brought low—unless you have a rather high opinion of yourself in the first place. This reminds us of an anecdote.

In 1969, the Israeli politician Simcha Dinitz spoke to the New York Times about Golda Meir, who had just become Israel’s Prime Minister: “She is always telling people: ‘Don’t be so humble—you’re not that great.’ ”

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