Victoria Coren Mitchell - Writer, Broadcaster & Poker Player

Ever So Umble

Saturday, 26 January 2013

  In the paper today, there’s a picture of Tessa Jowell, receiving her damehood at Buckingham Palace. She looks very nice in a smart red coat and hat, holding up the medal in a silk-lined box, family around in morning suits, camera bulbs flashing. Dame Tessa says: “This is so overwhelming, it’s a most extraordinary honour and I feel really humbled by it.”

  It reminds me of the Oscars last year, where Gary Oldman was nominated and said this was “extremely humbling.”

  Kevin Pietersen said it was “humbling” when he got a standing ovation for scoring a century.




  It’s an infuriating trend, which is only going to get worse; award winners will soon be saying they feel “humbled by the experience” as often as they salute their fellow nominees or thank their agents. But being HUMBLE is to have a LOW ESTIMATE OF ONE’S IMPORTANCE. Being humbled by someone else means: SOMEONE ELSE LOWERING YOUR ESTIMATE OF YOUR OWN IMPORTANCE. It would be humbling to score 0 at the cricket. To be overlooked for awards. To be ignored in the street by an old friend. To have your trousers fall down on the bus. And various other things that you don’t get a round of applause for. (Though I think I might definitely give someone a round of applause if their trousers fell down on the bus). (Not flashers).

  There is a sub-meaning of the verb “to humble” which means “to lower someone’s rank or status”, eg, to take someone’s knighthood away - like, you know, as in, LITERALLY THE OPPOSITE OF BEING MADE A DAME.

  Being feted, applauded, honoured, awarded… these things make people feel proud and puffed up! Fair enough. Good luck to them. Nothing wrong with feeling proud of yourself. But they need to stop saying it makes them feel humble. That translates, I think, as: “Today I feel like a big fat royal genius, all amazing and special and better than everyone, but I can simultaneously dispel the jealousy that all the lesser people must inevitably feel, by saying it has brought on a bout of tremendous worthlessness and low self-esteem. Then they will also love me, as well as being obliged to bow and call me Your Grace.”

  Well, it’s stupid. Stop doing it everyone. Or keep doing it, for the language must live and change, mustn’t it? And soon the dictionary can carry two meanings of the word “humble”: (1) modest, unpretentious, lowly or abased, (2) feeling like a big shiny great lord of the universe because you just won a thing and everyone’s clapping.

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Graham at 2:42 pm on January 26th, 2013

Most of those sound like their attempt to avoid the Humblebrag -

Although why people are given honours for doing the job they are paid to do is probably another column…

Justin at 4:27 pm on January 26th, 2013

I love you just that little bit more now.

David McGuire at 4:45 pm on January 26th, 2013

For once, I think I disagree.

If you receive an accolade, but feel entirely unworthy of it, doesn’t that suddenly bring your opinion of yourself into sharp focus…

...or, more pertinently still, doesn’t the sudden shift in perspective lower your opinion of yourself, in relative terms?

I might feel OK about myself. Then someone tells me I’m King Of The World and I want to disagree.

Isn’t that sobering sense of “No. Wow. This is too much. It’s bigger than me…” at least a bit like being humbled?

(That’s the feeling I’ve always felt they were referring to, anyway…)

Keith Jay Bee at 4:46 pm on January 26th, 2013

I’ve been puzzled by this usage of “humbling” for some time, and you’ve put your finger on it. Didn’t QE2 also use it in her Christmas message (re: diamond jubilee celebrations)? Will switch my allegiance to Queen Victoria instead!

Ian at 5:01 pm on January 26th, 2013

Does this phenomenon not arise from the feeling of unworthiness to garner such acclaim.  At first it is a great honour, but then follows the realisation that you are in the company of greats.  And then one feels unworthy of this comparison, and therefore potentially humble (albeit only relatively humble in comparison to the greats.  It’s almost like saying, “Wow, I’ve always thought I was pretty great, but when I stand next to my heroes I don’t feel quite as great as them, but I’m still greater than you *points at award, smiles*”)?

I imagine if I was awarded a title, and researched the company to which I had been elevated, and this revealed that I stood shoulder to shoulder with none other than Tessa Jowell….no you’re right.  Humbled would be the wrong word. Definitely.

Max at 5:02 pm on January 26th, 2013

Well, I hope Dame Tessa, Gary Oldman and Kevin Pietersen (and all others) read your blog and feel truly humbled.

Graeme at 5:11 pm on January 26th, 2013

How refreshing.  But can you come up with an adjective that Dame Tessa might have used to mean “well who’d have thought that little me should end up being so feted”?  I’m a bit stuck.

Nickoli at 5:14 pm on January 26th, 2013

This has bothered me for a long time, too.

John at 5:21 pm on January 26th, 2013

Do you mean envy rather than jealousy?

Roisin at 6:09 pm on January 26th, 2013

Yes! Thank you! I have been vexed about this for so long and nobody cares that it’s UNBELIEVABLY annoying. Every time I hear it, it makes me wince.
Also, the title of this post made me laugh. Uriah Heep lives on.

cjh at 6:56 pm on January 26th, 2013

Surely they just mean humbled by comparison with the others who have been similarly honoured ?

Alan Rodger at 7:19 pm on January 26th, 2013

I wonder if those that say they’re humbled feel so because of an element of guilt. The guilt would be due to their awareness that, in most cases, their achievement is not entirely their own (as everyone relies to some extent on the contribution or support of others). This realisation could make people feel humble, in the sense of being undeserving.

palladian at 7:56 pm on January 26th, 2013

Yes. But. There is humbling - scoring a duck; and then there is humiliating - your trews falling down in public.

Also. Perhaps. These megastars oft have an overweening sense of self-importance, fuelled by a public adulation that may be more for their fame than their achievements. If then they do get the gong or other real reward I could well imagine they might think “You know what, I’m truly not worthy of this” inducing not so much a ‘humbling’ as a smart dose of humility.

After all, do not we faithful intone “Domine non sum dignus…” when receiving the greatest gift of all?

Chris at 7:58 pm on January 26th, 2013

O’ Victoria, do you really not see what they’re saying? I agree with Ian and David McGuire.

What they’re trying to say in a nice simple cliche is, “Oh, I’m now one of those accomplished fellows. I’m now seen as high and successful, when did that happen? I don’t belong here, this other person I was thinking about really deserves it. I’m a nobody really, from what I would call humble origins. Gosh, how small I feel now that I’m rubbing shoulders with such giants.”

Whether they genuinely feel that or not is another question, but I thought it was obvious that this was their meaning.

The Tim at 12:12 am on January 27th, 2013

I agree with David and Ian that in the case of Jowell and Oldman it’s all about being humbled by the company you’re with. With KP and HM they probably meant it in a more literal sense that they were made to feel small by all the people standing around them from a higher level, many waving flags and banners. They may well have felt slightly intimidated but could hardly have said that.

Andre at 1:16 am on January 27th, 2013

Words are alive!  They grow and change and evolve with time and location.  That’s ok!  We noun verbs and verb nouns and make words do 180’s, and that ok!  Lets not be etymological Amish.

TO at 3:08 am on January 27th, 2013

I think David McGuire is onto something.  A lot of us have had the experience at one time or another of feeling like an imposter when we were praised at work or promoted - I imagine there might be something similar going on here (whether genuine or feigned). 

I also think in some cases they’re searching for a word and come up with humbling when really something like overwhelming might have been more accurate.

TO at 3:32 am on January 27th, 2013

Even if it’s not quite the right word, it isn’t using the word to mean it’s opposite, because they clearly DON’T mean to say that they feel puffed up and proud.

They are trying to say they feel undeserving, or overwhelmed, or something like that, but can’t quite put a finger on the right word.

Whether that’s how they genuinely feel is a whole other debate—some probably do, others are lying. 

But in either case the meaning they’re assigning to the word ISN’T the meaning of its opposite (feeling proud or raised in some way).

LondonS at 8:05 am on January 27th, 2013

I have to agree…. with some of the comments on here which provide a more nuanced explanation of the reasoning behind the use of the phrase ‘being humbled’
I thought about how I would feel receiving an award in front of an audience of my peers/the world.I’d feel happy of course. But also that something bigger than me was going on. I’d wonder at how people so easily put me on a pedestal -when I’m so ordinary!

Hence ‘being humbled’ is not a phrase that people use to simply describe (wrongly, as you point out) the external action of being knighted/awarded/praised/etc. Its more a description of how you feel at the time - overwhelmed, your ordinariness accentuated even more in stark contrast to the honour, a reminder that in the big scheme of this world you are but a small part, blah blah.

David at 10:33 am on January 27th, 2013

“... I think I might definitely…”. What a decisive statement

jim at 10:43 am on January 27th, 2013

Victoria,you on a BUS!

Jan at 5:25 pm on January 27th, 2013

‘Brimming with book recommendations?’. Yes,please. Just finished ‘For Richer, for Poorer’ & ‘How to Eat Out’. Both a delight - moving and very funny.  Other descriptions rejected after consulting dictionary for correct meaning.

Donald at 7:13 pm on January 27th, 2013

I would agree with you if someone said they felt humbled at receiving an award like the top prize in the London EPT, knowing that they had called upon the necessary skill, talent and staying power to win it. As regards awards like the Oscars however, where considerations of merit are subjective, I go along with David and others of the same view.

james at 9:14 pm on January 27th, 2013

May I add another word, which is used with infuriating regularity. That word is, AMAZING.  Why can’t people, who are interviewed on television or radio, widen their vocabulary, to describe an event or situation. David Beckham loves the word (I have won an enormous amount of cash, playing the ‘Beckham says amazing’ game). It is truly ‘amazing’, how people ‘amazingly’ state ‘amazing’, so ‘amazingly’ often in ‘amazing’ interviews. ‘It ‘amazes’ me!

Dennis at 11:22 pm on January 27th, 2013

Some of these events might be worth watching if people were umbled ... that is, pelted with umbles.

Philip at 11:18 am on January 28th, 2013

To be humble can be to do something with deference, can’t it? I agree that the quoted usage is a bit odd, but it’s obvious what they meant.

The Tim at 8:55 pm on January 28th, 2013

It’s also incredible how many times people use the word incredible. My other pet hates are awesome and wicked when it doesn’t mean evil.

bec at 6:23 am on January 29th, 2013

Words change meaning all the time through usage. Always have done and always will. The dictionary is full of words that now mean the total opposite of what they originally did, despite pointless rants by boring old pedants.

Clive at 8:57 pm on January 29th, 2013

Yeah, I think the word got used in another context, like celebs at Children of Britain type awards, where they see poor mites getting trophies for good deeds. They’re moving it here, think the obscure word is ‘humptydumptering’ when you mean the opposite, such as saying an East End villain was ‘a truly good person’, that kind of thing.

John Nugent at 9:19 am on February 1st, 2013

Spurred by your never-ending praise of it, I recently revisited the Steve McQueen (what man doesn’t feel humbled next to him?) movie “The Cincinnati Kid”, a film I hadn’t seen since my youth.

As I settled into watching the opening scenes I gradually began to remember being more than a little confused and disappointed (without remembering the details) with the final hand of stud poker played between the “Kid” and the “Man”, in which McQueen lost all his dough plus a $5000 marker to the “Man” played by the superb Edward G. Robinson. I hoped that I had become sufficiently informed in the art of card-playing to finally understand the logic/beauty of that fateful hand.

Unfortunately I am left even more baffled now.

Should I quit playing myself?

Humbly Yours,


Victoria Coren at 9:39 am on February 3rd, 2013

Hi John. Yup: it’s a terrible last hand. But an otherwise great movie (and I really love the book).

Speaking of books, Jan asked what my recommendations were (as mentioned in passing in last week’s Obs column) - well, apart from Rupert Everett’s autobiography, also on holiday I enjoyed Joseph Connolly’s novel “England’s Lane” (possibly because I live near England’s Lane - though I hope Connolly misrepresents the number of murderers working there), Jessica Mitford’s memoir Hons And Rebels (though I didn’t like her as much as I thought I would), and I absolutely can’t remember what else I read. But I liked those three.

Gordon W from Australia at 10:35 am on February 6th, 2013

Enjoy your blog and point of view - just saw you here in Australian on an episode of Q! (I’ve met and chatted with Stephen Fry -what a cak!). If you are ever in Australia - drop by - anytime…

paul at 1:28 pm on February 6th, 2013

i work on the QPR podcast open all R’s and we would love to have you on as a guest.
Please email me if this can happen

Henning at 11:06 pm on February 14th, 2013

You should do a guest spot on David’s podcast about that. It really is no wonder you two found each other.

John Brown at 6:33 pm on February 17th, 2013

Two questions:
1) Why all the upper case text, are you shouting?
2) When will you produce another Balderdash And Piffle?

Victoria Coren at 12:07 am on February 21st, 2013

Hi John.

(1) I know, it’s a terrible habit I’ve got into, I’m so sorry. I just find it so USEFUL for emphasis!

(2) I’m afraid it’s not up to me. I would be delighted to do another series of Balderdash & Piffle but it’s down to BBC Two, not me, and I think they felt two series were enough…

Victoria Coren

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