Politics in America / Semantics

“In the present-day vernacular, people are most humbled by the things that make them look good”

To be humbled is to be brought low or somehow diminished in standing or stature. Sometimes we’re humbled by humiliation or failure or some other calamity. And sometimes we’re humbled by encountering something so grand, meaningful or sublime that our own small selves are thrown into stark contrast — things like history, or the cosmos, or the divine.

“Humbled” is what a politician might have been, in pre-post-truth times, if, say, caught doing the very thing he had campaigned to criminalize. To be “humbled” is to find yourself in the embarrassing position of having to shimmy awkwardly off your pedestal, or your high horse — or some other elevated place that would not have seemed so elevated had you not been so lowly to begin with — muttering apologies and cringing, with your skirt riding up past your granny pants. It is to think you are in a position of fanciness, only to learn to your utter chagrin that you are in a relatively modest one instead.

This is no longer how most of us speak. In the present-day vernacular, people are most humbled by the things that make them look good. They are humbled by the sublimity of their own achievements.

Carina Chocano, “Lying Low”, The New York Times Magazine (29 January 2017), 14.