A reasoned plea to athletes and other public figures: stop your egregious, persistent misuse of the phrase “I am humbled”

Before I get into the meat of this post, I just want to say that I am humbled, truly humbled, you have chosen to visit our little corner of the sports blogosphere to read what I have to say.

Or am I?

Well, if I were to use the phrase “I am humbled” like we hear so many athletes and public figures use it, then yes, I suppose I am actually humbled that by virtue of you reading these words you are giving me the very real gift of your time and the honor of your attention.

But – and forgive me for being blunt here, because I am thisclose to exploding in petpeeved annoyance – how in the hell is that actually humbling?

The reality is that it’s not. Your presence here is not humbling. The fact that you – a reader I respect and try to entertain and inform every day – are reading these words that I have written fills me with more pride than I can put into words. And the last time I checked – ten seconds ago – pride is an antonym of humility.

So what gives? Am I humbled by your presence or prideful about your presence? Am I both? Neither? One thing is for sure: don’t look to athletes for guidance on this one.

First, let’s take a quick look at the definition of the word humbled:

humbled past participle, past tense of hum·ble (Verb)

  1. Lower (someone) in dignity or importance: “I knew he had humbled himself to ask for my help”.
  2. Decisively defeat (another team or competitor, typically one that was previously thought to be superior).

Okay, so by the actual definition of the word, your presence here at MSF would have to lower me in dignity or importance for me to be humbled by you being here. Clearly this is not the case.

My goal with every post is to write something useful, either by being informative or entertaining or both, and for it to be seen by as many people in its target audience as possible. The fact that you are here reading this means that you are bestowing dignity upon my words and this site and that you are elevating it to a level of importance by virtue of the fact that you are investing time into reading it.

Hmm…are you starting to see the contradiction here?

Let’s look at a few examples from the sports world of athletes using this oft-misused term. I should note that I did not choose these examples for any reason in particular. They were simply the initial ones I found upon doing a few relevant Google searches.

This seems like a good place to start:

I am humbled to be a part of the NFL Network team,” said [Matt] Millen. “It is very exciting to be joining Bob Papa and an outstanding crew of professionals on the Thursday Night Football telecasts.”

It’s only fitting that we begin this rebuke of those who use the term “I am humbled” incorrectly with a man who truly has been humbled (goodness I hope) during his post-playing days.

i-am-humbled-matt-millenIn reference to the quote above, my question for Matt Millen would be: why are you humbled to be part of the NFL Network team? I can see how Millen might be humbled in the presence of people who are actually competent at their job, someone like Bob Papa, but it makes no sense to say that he is humbled to be part of the team…unless he thinks the team is beneath him. If he believes that being part of the NFL Network team lowers him in dignity or importance, then by all mean he should claim to be humbled. Otherwise, he should say, “I take pride in being a part of the NFL Network team and working with people like Bob Papa and the outstanding crew of professional on the Thursday Night Football telecasts, true professionals in whose presence I feel humbled.”

See the difference?

Let’s try again, this time with another person who has proven to have very flimsy control of the English language:

“I try to play as the MVP every time I go out on the court,” [LeBron] James said. “If a trophy comes with it, I’m humbled and blessed and will be thankful. It’s going to be a lot of MVP trophies after me, and it was some before me. At some point, you’re going to have to give it up to someone.”

So let me get this straight LeBron. You try to play as the MVP every night, and if that somehow results in you being named MVP you will feel as if your dignity or importance have been lowered? Really?

Actually, what you meant to say is that you would take great pride in being named MVP. Sure, you might be humbled in the presence of those who won the MVP award before you (although, based on anecdotal evidence, this is probably not actually the case) but to say you would be humbled to win the MVP actually dimishes the importance of past MVPs, the importance of the trophy, and the importance of you. And we know, LeBron, that you would never intentionally diminish your own importance, so clearly you have misspoken here.

Drat. We’re now two-for-two on sports figures egregiously misusing the wonderful and meaningful phrase “I am humbled.” Is there anyone we can look to for guidance and direction on how this phrase is meant to be used?

I’m humbled and I just want to win games,” Vick told Paolantonio via text message.

Thank you Michael Vick. It may have taken going to jail and losing your fortune, but at least you learned the true meaning of the word humbled.

This quote came earlier this year when Vick was named the starting quarterback over Kevin Kolb. I know what you’re thinking based on what I said above: how is it correct for Vick to say he is “humbled” when he was just given the honor of being the Eagles’ starting quarterback.

Thinking…

Thinking…

Damnit. Fine. You’re right. I’d need a little more context on the conversation between Vick and SalPal to know how he meant this.

The reason I am trying to give Vick the benefit of the doubt is because we know that to get back to being an NFL superstar – which he certainly is again – Vick had to be humbled. He had to have his dignity dragged through the mud and his importance lowered to realize that he needed to change both on and off the field. If his invocation of the phrase “I’m humbled” in the above statement was referencing this process, then he has used it correctly. If, however, he simply meant it in response to being named the starting QB, well, then he should have said something else (because I would hope he felt a sense of pride and not humbleness after receiving a great honor and responsibility like being named the starting quarterback)…which leaves us still searching for a proper example.

Wait! I think I found one!

Coach Mike Gundy announced Blackmon’s suspension Wednesday during a news conference after the Cowboys practiced. Blackmon also briefly addressed reporters, saying he “made a mistake” and takes “full responsibility” for it.

“I’m embarrassed to be in this position,” Blackmon said. “I’m truly sorry to my family, to my friends and to Oklahoma State all together. I look forward to redeeming myself and proving to everybody that this isn’t who I am. I’m not this guy. I’m humbled by this experience, and I will grow from it.

“I did it and I should be punished for it. I’m just going to take my punishment like I should.”

Ding! Ding! Ding! Leave it to a college kid to teach these professionals what it means to actually be humbled.

justin-blackmonYou’ll recall that Blackmon, the heir apparent to Dez Bryant as Oklahoma State’s official Badass Wide Receiver, was suspended in October of this past season. In response, he claimed to have made a mistake, that he was embarrassed, and that he was so humbled that he wants to redeem himself and grow from a mistake. Yes, by jove, I believe that is textbook use of the phrase “I am humbled.”

A quick recap:

  • Being hired by the NFL Network to announced Thursday Night Football Games? Not humbling.
  • Winning an NBA MVP award? Not humbling.
  • Being named the starting quarterback of an NFL team when there is a perfectly capable alternative? Not humbling.
  • Getting suspended and realizing you’re an immature kid who needs to grow up? Humbling.

Hopefully that clears things up.

The question, then, is why do so many people misuse this phrase? Is it because they simply do not know what it means? Perhaps. Not everyone used to study SAT vocabulary lists for fun like I did (true story). Note that this doesn’t mean I’m perfect and never misuse words, because I do; but I certainly make my best effort not to completely bastardize a word by using it in the opposite context for which it is intended.

I suppose it is possible Matt Millen, LeBron James, and Michael Vick do not know, literally, what it means to be humbled. Certainly this is what their use of it suggests. But I think there is something more to it, a more reasonable explanation for the prevalent misuse of a term as easy to understand as humbled.

I think athletes and public figures (especially politicians) often speak disingenuously in an effort to make themselves look good, and no word is used disingenuously more often than humbled. Why? Because it’s a word that people, in general, hear and consider with positive connotations. Athletes, politicians, actors, basically anyone who has fame and fortune, knows that people will dislike and resent them if they come across as arrogant or haughty.

Thus, the term humbled gets used in places where it doesn’t belong to convey a thought or feeling that isn’t really there. The result is that it has now been used so often and so publicly in this erroneous context by people whose voices carry far and wide that the misused version of the word and phrase has taken on a life of its own that now infects impressionable minds and voices and leads to further incorrect use that perpetuates even further incorrect use that, all in all, makes us all collectively lazier communicators who are not nearly as adept at using our most powerful human tool – language – as we could or should be.

My obsessive pet peeve with the phrase “I am humbled” – it is like nails on chalkboard every damn time it’s used in the wrong context – is but one example of how we bastardize the incredible English language. Here are some others, if you’re interested.

In summation, I would simply like to send the following message to all of the athletes and sports figures who undoubtedly will not be reading this post: stop your incorrect and disingenuous use of the phrase “I am humbled.” Save this terrific expression of thoughtfulness and this symbol of introspective clarity for the times when you actually mean it.

When you are explaining an achievement that you worked hard for and take pride in, tell us that. Use words that actually express what you actually mean, because it is a perfectly acceptable and relatable feeling. Do not try to placate us by trying to act humble when the reality is that you are feeling the exact opposite. It’s an insult to our intelligence and an insult to the English language. Ultimately, it’s an insult to yourself because inherent in your incorrect use of the phrase is an admission that you don’t know what it means.

I will end with this final thought:

If this post does inspire anyone to change how they use the phrase “I am humbled” so that they are using it properly, I will feel an overwhelming sense of pride. On the contrary, if you consider my words to be meaningless or the topic itself insignificant, then I will be truly humbled.

And yes, I mean it. (Correctly.)



About Jerod Morris

I love words. I write for Copyblogger and founded MSF, The Assembly Call, & Primility. I practice yoga, eat well, & strive for balance. I love life. Namaste. Say hi on Twitter, Facebook, & G+.

Comments

  1. You need to look at this glass half full. The fact that these egomaniacs know a word that has humble in it should be good news.

    Yeah, pet peeve of mine too. But, I'm a word nerd.

  2. Some guy says:

    This pisses me off to no end. I'm glad other people are noticing it.

  3. Some other guy says:

    Before I blather, I want to say that I think you're probably right: these people don't know just what they're saying.

    However, I think there's a very real possibility that receiving an award, a job, or a quarterbackship really could be humbling, if indirectly. You nailed the first logical reaction: pride. But maybe, after pondering the pride, a person could realize that he/she doesn't really deserve what was given. Perhaps the fact that Mike Vick did become starting QB made him recognize how easily he could have not been starting QB; perhaps it made him even more aware of his shortcomings. And as a result he was humbled.

    That said, none of the quotations indicate that any of these folks meant it in this way.

    • So….let me get this right…..all awards these athletes are given….and everytime they make make an acceptance speech….they indirectly feel as though they don’t deserve it….man u never must have been an athlete…I once won an MVP trophy for high school track….drank all the time and partied with the best of them….probably didn’t deserve it….but I’ll tell you what….felt like I was the best athlete in the world and acted like it….in absolutely no way was I inderrctly humbled and the very notion that I might have been is just laughable….and in all actuality now looking back on it I definitely wasn’t the best athlete on that team….just the scoring system was in my favor….my point is this…these athletes put their whole lives in perfecting a craft…night and day is devoted to sport…they take great “pride” in being mentioned with the greatest athletes and top honors….there is no way these professional athletes are indirectly feeling humbled as they accept awards thatthey work their entire lives forto acheive….dude get real….and like I said…if u don’t believe this u were not an athlete by any measure

  4. Thank you! This one irks me, too. The worst example I can think of was during LeBron's televised "decision" to join Miami. He said he was "humbled" to have a bunch of teams salivating over the prospect of signing him. That experience is the direct opposite of "humbling." If he had failed to receive attention from the media and zero NBA franchises expressed interest in his free agency, THAT would be a humbling experience.

  5. Lindarella888 says:

    I am humbled by this article. Seriously, this is a major pet peeve of mine too. What they usually mean is “honored” or even “flattered.”

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