It is odd how a word or usage that comes to one’s attention often pops up again quite quickly. Perhaps it is just a case of being sensitised to it.

When the first person complained to me about the way in which people said, in response to being given an award or a prize, that they were humbled, I dismissed it as a minor cavil. ‘Why humbled?’ asked my sister. ‘They should be proud!’

When a second person objected to this use of humbled, I thought perhaps there was something in it. The login is fine. The idea is that to be given such a great honour has the effect of making you feel insignificant and unworthy.

The objection probably is made on two grounds. First it smacks of false modesty. The recipient should own up to feeling very pleased and proud and not pretend to feel anything else. Politicians are forever claiming to feel humbled, and yet it is egotism rather than humility that is on display.

I think however that the distinction can be made between winning a prize or a competition or the like, where the gaining of the prize is dependent on the individual’s skill,  and the winning of recognition for one’s life work or brave actions  or behaviour in special circumstances where there is no competition involved but the community wishes to pay some respect. Possibly that is a circumstance in which the recipient of such attention can feel humbled.

But this is where the second reason for objecting comes into play. Being humbled is becoming a bit of a cliché.  Almost everyone celebrated in the media for some achievement immediately says they feel terribly humbled. Perhaps we should move on to some other accepted phrase for receiving accolades.

Sue ButlerComment