The Grammarphobia Blog

In our humble opinion

Q: The new CEO of a local organization recently emailed this: “It is with humbleness and excitement that I take on this leadership role.” Why back-form a clumsy-sounding noun from an adjective when we already have a perfectly good noun—“humility”?

A: One of the blessings of English is its flexibility. We have umpteen different ways of saying something with umpteen different shadings.

That CEO could have taken on his new job with humility, humbleness, modesty, diffidence, meekness, selflessness, and so on.

Clumsiness is in the eye (and ear) of the beholder. It’s not even clear whether “humility” or “humbleness” is conciser, let alone nicer. “Humility” has two fewer letters, but “humbleness” has one less syllable.

More important, both nouns showed up in English around the same time (back in the 1300s!) and writers have been choosing one or the other ever since, depending on tone, cadence, intonation, and so on.

Shakespeare, for instance, used “humbleness” in the late 1500s in The Merchant of Venice (“With bated breath, and whispring humblenes”) and he used “humility” in the early 1600s in Coriolanus (“Enter Coriolanus in a gowne of Humility, with Menenius”).

He had a way with words, didn’t he? We especially like the idea of whispering humbleness.

Both “humility” and “humbleness” have Gallic roots, though “humbleness” has more of an Anglo-Saxon flavor because of its Old English suffix.

English got “humility” from the Middle French humilité, but the ultimate source is humilis, Latin for low or humble, according to the online Merriam-Webster Unabridged.

“Humbleness” comes from the Middle English adjective humble and the Old English suffix -ness. The adjective, in turn, is derived from the Old French umble or humble, which ultimately comes from humilis, the same Latin source as “humility.”

The first of these nouns to show up in English was “humility,” according to written examples in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest citation in the OED is from “The Five Joys of the Virgin Mary” (circa 1315), a poem by William of Shoreham: Thorȝ clennesse and humylyte (“Her pureness and humility”).

The dictionary’s earliest example for “humbleness” is from the Wycliffe Bible of 1388: “He knowynge her pride, and schewinge his owene humblenesse.”

We’ll end with these not-so-humble remarks by Uriah Heep to David Copperfield:

“Ah! But you know we’re so very umble. And having such a knowledge of our own umbleness, we must really take care that we’re not pushed to the wall by them as isn’t umble. All stratagems are fair in love, sir.”

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