Well, I can’t restrain myself any longer. So far, I’ve avoided using Monday Morning Rail to rail against anything at all. But the escalating misuse of one particular word in the English language has gotten me so worked up, so incensed, so indignant that there is no containing my rage. The world is going to hell in a handbasket, and I am FURIOUS.
So what’s the offending word?
I normally don’t notice, or care about, people’s word usage. That’s the honest truth. Sometimes my friends tell me that they hesitate to write to me for fear that I might secretly cast judgment on their grammar or spelling. In reality, though, I hardly ever notice such things. You can “ain’t” me to death and I won’t even wince. And you’ve all seen my typos; my writing is riddled with them. The older I get, it seems, the less likely it is that an error will jump off the page at me. So don’t worry – I’m really not conscious of anyone’s mistakes.
(On the other hand, I do admit that I once told my father that I found myself wildly attracted to anyone who used good grammar or an uncommon word. He said that he completely understood.)
The reason that the misuse of “humbled” drives me so utterly bananas is that it really is emblematic of the societal trend that is most disturbing to me: people’s compulsive need to trumpet their own wonderfulness to the masses.
Okay, let’s start first with the general meaning of humility. The 10-pound Webster’s Dictionary sitting on my desk says that humility is “the quality of being without pride; voluntary self-abasement.” That seems a bit overboard to me, so I prefer the Oxford definition, which is that humility is “a modest view of one’s own importance.” Many religions of the world – Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and others – go a bit farther. They teach that humility is a virtue, and that to attain it requires a recognition that one’s individual place in the world is subordinate to a higher power and is no different from, and no loftier than, anyone else’s.
I believe that true humility is a goal we should all pursue. Now, I’m not talking about abdicating all sense of pride or worth in ourselves, because that’s just counterproductive. (In fact, I know from experience that my own personal insecurities can even be annoying to others. After our last rehearsal, my bandmate Dina said to me, “If you would just get over all of your ‘isms’ and phobias, you could actually be a good drummer!” I’m still laughing about that one.) Anyway, what I’m talking about is realizing that we are all much too besotted with our own perceived greatness when in fact, as the Firesign Theatre so deftly put it, we are all just bozos on this bus.
All right, that’s out of the way. So, now, what does “humbled” mean? In its most extreme definition, it could mean being debased or demeaned. I prefer to define it as the state that occurs when people are made to feel less significant or important than they thought they were.
For example, let’s say a braggart boasted that he was the best in the world at something, and then he entered a competition and came in last. He would be humbled.
Here’s a gentler version of that – a true story that happened to my brother and me. When we were teenagers, my father wanted to teach us what real work was like – you know, the kind of work his own father had done in the poultry business when he settled in San Leandro in the early part of the last century. So Dad arranged for Marc and me to work one weekend for a kindly, elderly family friend named Joe Gallo who had a small ranch in San Jose. Our job was to cut apricots and lay them on pallets to dry. That’s all we had to do. We were put to work under an outdoor canopy with a gaggle of older women, and we looked around at them and thought that we were “all that and a bag of chips.” We would leave these ladies in the dust, we assumed, with our apricot-cutting talents because they were so ancient and tended to yak amongst themselves the entire time. Two days later, our hands were crisscrossed with knife slices. We were hot and we were sore. Our technique – which essentially was “keep sawing keep sawing keep sawing keep sawing, ok, one apricot done” did not compare to the ladies’ technique, which essentially was “slice, done! slice, done! slice, done!” They cut roughly 20 pallets to every one that we did. On Sunday afternoon, we went up to Mr. Gallo to collect our pay, which was based on the number of ’cots we had cut. With great solemnity, he presented us with our checks: $3.75 apiece, for two days’ exhausting labor. That, my friends, was humbling.
So what is going on with the sudden, pervasive misuse of “humbled”? Well, one of the corruptions of the word involves its substitution for the words “honored” or “grateful.” If someone were to ask me, for instance, to host an awards ceremony for local heroes, I would say that I would be honored to do so. This would mean, “I am thrilled to be asked and I am full of respect for what I am being requested to do.” And I would be grateful to have been the chosen speaker.
Or if I were to win the Pulitzer Prize (which is a reasonable bet), I would say that I was honored to be among the many talented writers who have received that award and grateful to have been chosen.
However, when the great baseball slugger Jim Thome was awarded a plaque on the Philadelphia Phillies Wall of Fame last month, he said he was “humbled.” No, he wasn’t. He undoubtedly deserved a place on the wall; after all, he hit 89 home runs in his first two years with the club. So he may have been honored to be there among the other Phillies greats, but the accomplishment certainly did not humble him. This word-substitution problem seems to be really prominent among athletes who may have simply won a game or title of some sort (“I’m so humbled to have thrown the game-winning pass in this [meaningless] regular-season game!”).
But I have left the most egregious offense for last. What I really cannot abide are people who are simply out for self-aggrandizement and have begun to use “humbled” to somehow indicate that they’re heroic for touting themselves!! For example, they tweet something or post something self-serving on Facebook, then tack “humbled!” onto the end to make themselves sound virtuous!
“One of my clients just told me he thinks I’m terrific. Humbled!”
Of course, it’s very convenient to claim that you are humbled when what you really want to do is announce to the entire world that you’ve just been given some sort of trivial accolade – either by someone else or by your own puffed-up self!
Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!
I think I will jump on the bandwagon, and I encourage my readers to comment with their own “humbled!” statements.
Here are mine:
My Uncle Dave, who was a professional baker, said my molasses cookies were “quite tasty.” Humbled!
The hairdresser just told me I have a thick head of hair. Humbled!
I finally figured out what a Dutch oven is. Humbled!
Not to boast, but my boobs haven’t started to sag yet. Humbled!