Words lose their original meaning. I wrote about how it happened to “sarcastic,” which now just means “I’m an asshole.” “Literally” is another. “Literally” used to mean “actually” and now it means “exaggerated for emphasis.” It’s over. Literalists have lost. “Literally” means both “literally” and “figuratively.” It’s in the Oxford dictionary. But the battle is not over for “humbled.” “Humbled” means “to lower (someone) in dignity or importance.” But lots of people, usually politicians and athletes, who have been called “those two great manglers of the English language,” use this word to mean the exact opposite. In the past 36 hours, there have been published reports of misused “humbled”s from:
- Boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr., the highest-earning athlete in America, who said “I’m humbled and extremely fortunate to be recognized by Forbes as the highest-paid athlete once again. I’m doing something that no other athlete is doing, promoting myself and seeing my hard work pay off in the form of record-breaking numbers.”
- Texas Congressman Jeb Hensarling, who said “he was ‘humbled‘ that people had approached him about possibly taking on a new leadership role in the U.S. House of Representatives.”
- Georgia Congressman Tom Price, who said “he was humbled by encouragement from colleagues, adding he’s ‘ready to serve in whatever capacity might best help unify our team, promote our conservative principles and, above all, pursue positive solutions on behalf of our constituents.'”
I’m going to start with Mayweather and then come back to the Representatives. His statement is literally ironic (both words used correctly! high five!), because Floyd Mayweather Jr. is the second-cockiest athlete in the history of sports. He is also undefeated. He is also giving a statement congratulating himself on how rich and good at self-promotion he is. He is not humble nor has he ever publicly been humbled. If I were to give a textbook example of how “humbled” is used incorrectly, I would use this.
The other two are Republican politicians who have been mentioned as successors to Eric Cantor, the House Majority Leader who on Tuesday lost his primary race to a previously unknown candidate and has since announced that he is stepping down. Eric Cantor has been humbled. He was a leader who thought his place of power secure, but was toppled by an underdog. Eric Cantor has been lowered in dignity and importance in a way that is partially accountable to his own hubris. If I were to give a textbook example of a man who has been humbled, I would use Eric Cantor. Or Mike Tyson. Mike Tyson has been humbled over and over again.
These other two guys, they’re not being humbled. They’re being honored. It is an honor to be thought of as a leader. Being honored is the opposite of being humbled. It’s very, very simple: these people are using the word wrong.
“Literally” was used incorrectly so many times that people learned the incorrect meaning, and thus it became correct by consensus. It was technically wrong, but people knew what it meant, so it became right. The English language is mutable. Meanings change. The same thing could be happening to “humbled.” If we all understand that “humbled” means “honored,” it can mean “honored,” and that’s the way it will be. But “humbled” is a beautiful concept, and an important concept, one that needs to be preserved. The Eric Cantors and Floyd Mayweathers of the world need to be humbled now and then, by which I mean they need to be reminded of their humanness. There’s a reason the Icarus myth has endured. Men cannot reach the sun. Men belong on the ground. To remove the word “humbled” is to remove checks on any one person gaining too much power or influence.
So if someone says they’re “humbled,” chances are they need to be humbled. Literally.