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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

blessed, humbled

humbled (1990’s | journalese (politics?) | “honored”)
blessed (2000’s | celebritese? | “fortunate”)

Up until 1990 or so, you were humbled when something bad happened to you. “Humbled” meant “chastened” or “brought low,” occasionally “awed”; sportswriters liked to use it to mean “trounced.” Both sides had to be specified then; your boss humbled you or one team humbled another. By 2000, it was commonplace to use the word when something good happened, as an acknowledgment of an award or a new job (especially political office), or just the fact that lots of people wished you well or recognized your contributions. The old uses are still available, but less natural, as “humbled” has become a word powerful people use to convey their satisfaction at their own success. It gives them a perfect way to pretend they are modest and hardworking rather than power-hungry parasites living off the rest of us — without being forced to lie about it. That makes the word a politician’s dream. Being “humbled” is not the same as being “humble,” after all — it’s a temporary state rather than an essential part of one’s character.

It can have other implications: one is the acute awareness of new and taxing responsibilities. When the new president says he is humbled (cf. “your humble servant,” “public servant”), we are to understand that he understands the challenges ahead and aims to get right to work for the voters. But the word need not carry any such implication. In the earliest instance I found on LexisNexis (October 23, 1989) — not an exhaustive search — Ronald Reagan said he was “humbled and deeply honored” upon being inducted into the Grand Cordon of the Supreme Order of the Chrysanthemum by the Japanese government, an accolade utterly devoid of duties. Reagan, who went far trading on his humble upbringing, understood the power of the word. I’d like to think he originated today’s use of “humbled.” Reagan was adept at using Christian vocabulary, and humility as a fundamental attitude toward God and toward other people is an important Christian virtue.

“Blessing” is another essential Christian concept, meaning a reward from the Lord. “Blessed” (two syllables) is a mainstay of the King James Bible (“Blessed are the meek . . .”) but has not formed part of informal American speech for over a century now except as a substitute for “damned” in curses. “Blest” is archaic and was last used with any frequency in ejaculations like “I’ll be blest!” Every time someone alludes to a sneeze, you are blessed, or you might be blessed (one syllable) by a member of the clergy. A new baby used to be called a “blessed (two syllables) event.” But although the word has not shed its religious origin, the way we use it now has taken it far from old-time Christianity. We use “blessed” (one syllable) simply to mean “lucky.” Maybe because you have loyal friends or family, maybe because you worked hard and were kind to animals, maybe because you won the lottery. Good fortune doesn’t have to come from the creator of the universe, or any specific source.

“Blessed” as it is thrown around today may just be short for “blessed with.” It has long been customary to say one is “blessed with” children, a good job, etc., and it’s really just a polite way to say “lucky,” so it seems the obvious ancestor. The rise of “blessed” may simply be a matter of creating a new expression that takes on a life of its own by eliminating the object, in the tradition of “give back.” In a culture that values fast-paced, short-winded verbiage, briefer is always better. Except on my blog.

One feature “blessed” and “humbled” share, aside from religious roots, is they are both backdoor ways of thanking people who have helped make you what you are. Both “humbled” and “blessed” as we use them now suggest gratitude without directly expressing it. In the old-time religious sense, the gratitude is implicit but definitely real, because the believer offers thanks to God for blessings and humblings alike. As these two words have diffused into secular speech, they retain a vestige of that old force. This is particularly clear in the case of “blessed”; when you say, “I’m so blessed because I have a wonderful family,” it isn’t hard to construe the sentence as expressing thanks to your relatives. When a politician is “humbled” upon winning an election, it’s not as obvious, but it doesn’t take much imagination to see that as expressing thanks to the voters. Either way, one avoids openly acknowledging a debt to anyone else. Again, a politician’s dream.

“Humbled” and “blessed” are both significant terms in Christianity, and it may seem a triumph for religious activism when its vocabulary is adopted by the general population. Yet the co-opting of more or less sacred language to mark good fortune without divine origin does religion no favors. Casual, widespread use of such expressions quickly diminishes their power and mystery and drains them of significance, so they cannot help being cheapened even in the eyes of believers. “Blessed” — along with “humble” and its alternate forms, “humbled” and “humbling,” now used to mask deep and abiding arrogance — has suffered this fate. That is part of the reason many devout people have championed strict separation of church and state over the last three centuries. When religious organizations take too active an interest in worldly politics, they may damage the government, but they will infallibly damage themselves.

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