The Grammarphobia Blog

When bragging is ever so humble

Q: What word would you use for a situation in which people criticize themselves to get others to disagree and reassure them? For example, “I’m such a dummy” … “No, of course you’re not.”

A: We can’t think of a word that would do the job by itself. Perhaps the closest is “humblebrag,” a boast disguised as self-criticism, but it’s not close enough. We’ll have more to say about “humblebrag” later, but let’s consider your question first.

Phrases like “false modesty” and “insincere humility” imply the self-effacement but not the ulterior motive—getting praise or reassurance.

A phrase like “manipulative self-criticism” might do. Or perhaps a longer expression like “using self-criticism to fish for compliments.”

You could, of course, make up a new word along the lines of “humblebrag,” but we suspect that a neologism like “humbleswoggle” isn’t quite what you’re looking for.

Sorry we can’t be more helpful. Now let’s look at “humblebrag.”

Merriam-Webster online defines the verb as “to make a seemingly modest, self-critical, or casual statement or reference that is meant to draw attention to one’s admirable or impressive qualities or achievements.” The dictionary has a similar definition for the noun.

M-W says the “first known use” of “humblebrag” was in 2002, while Oxford Dictionaries online dates it to the “early 21st century.” The comedy writer Harris Wittels helped popularize the term in the early 2010s with his @humblebrag Twitter account and his 2012 book Humblebrag: The Art of False Modesty.

Here are a few “humblebrag” examples: “I get bored with constantly being mistaken for a model” … “I’ve lost so much weight that none of my clothes fit” … “It’s hard to manage the housekeeping with one place in the Hamptons and another on Park Avenue.”

In researching the term, we came across a Harvard Business School paper, “Humblebragging: A Distinct—and Ineffective—Self-Presentation Strategy,” by Ovul Sezer, Francesca Gino, and Michael I. Norton (April 2015).

The authors, citing seven studies, assert that combining a brag with complaints or humility is “less effective than straightforward bragging.”

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