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From a recent article on CNN:

Aboukhadijeh, who is from Sacramento, California, said he's been blown away by how quickly his tool went viral and is grateful for all the supportive feedback.

"I'm amazed and humbled by all the attention it's received. So thank you," he said.

TheFreeDictionary shows the definition of "humbled" as:

hum·bled, hum·bling, hum·bles
1. To curtail or destroy the pride of; humiliate.
2. To cause to be meek or modest in spirit.
3. To give a lower condition or station to; abase. See Synonyms at degrade.

None of these definitions seem to apply:

  1. Being the author of something that is widely appreciated would seem to be cause for pride, rather than to curtail or destroy it.
  2. His "modesty," or expectation that he would only have a small audience for his work, seems to be a pre-existing condition that is merely revealed by the event, not something that is caused by the event.
  3. He created a tool that was rapidly used and appreciated by many, with the result being that he found himself in a higher condition or station than he was before.

Is there a subtlety I'm missing here?

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I think it's something you say so that you don't sound stuck-up when you make it big. – mmyers Sep 14 '10 at 18:51
I agree with all of the definitions that have been given - however, the etymology seems backward to me. When did that inversion happen? – mskfisher Sep 14 '10 at 21:59
2nd version of theFreeDictionary is the one used in the article. the event made the person feel meeker/more modest. – mplungjan Feb 7 '11 at 8:57
The Free Dictionary has since modified their definition: tr.v. hum·bled, hum·bling, hum·bles 1. To cause to feel humble: "He was humbled by the lack of consolation in Kornblum's expression". 2. To cause to have a lower condition or status; abase. – Mari-Lou A Apr 15 at 8:06
Might one suggest that the good lexicographers are dealing with English rather than the cliches of public speaking, and that the good Californian has listened to too many acceptance speeches? Or will this get a newbie kicked out? – David Pugh Apr 20 at 20:31

9 Answers 9

up vote 11 down vote accepted

Merriam-Webster's online dictionary lists humbled as "To make humble". Humble is listed as

not proud or haughty : not arrogant or assertive

which makes a little more sense.

Still though, it's not exactly the clearest of constructions.

I think he's expressing the feeling that the tool and the community surrounding it have become bigger than himself, and he feels lower in station than all the people who took the time to promote/use the tool he wrote.

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+1, I think the last sentence just about sums it up. – pkaeding Sep 14 '10 at 16:04
Right, he is saying he feels like he got more attention and support than he thought he deserved. – Kosmonaut Sep 14 '10 at 16:08
Right, but as I was saying, this seems to be revealing how little he thinks he deserves rather than lowering the actual amount that he thinks he deserves. – mskfisher Sep 14 '10 at 18:24
I agree with the first part of the last sentence: "I think he's expressing the feeling that the tool and the community surrounding it have become bigger than himself" but certainly not necessarily the second. – mplungjan Feb 7 '11 at 9:00
The Merriam-Webster definition of the adjective humble, consisting of four things that the word does NOT mean, has to be one of MW's worst efforts. – Sven Yargs Apr 20 at 5:21

I don't think it's an expression to be over-analyzed. It's simply a polite, modest way of saying that he was not expecting such a great reception for his work. It's true that analytically what he said is probably not literally what he meant, but being humbled by something seems to mean in this context that something has made you feel a bit undeserving.

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I agree, I'm nit-picking. I know English is full of inconsistencies like these, and I'm interested in figuring out where and when they originate - and whether it's worth it to even worry about them. :) – mskfisher Sep 17 '10 at 12:16

The expression appears to be quite common in contexts where a show of one's modesty is actually a sign of one's personality and successful accomplishments. This meaning is actually not present in regular dictionaries. The Urban Dictionary says:


  • An admirable quality that not many people possess. It means that a person may have accomplished alot, or be alot but doesn't feel it is necessary to advertise or brag about it.


  • When someone says "I am humbled," generally he means that he has been made to feel more modest , or perhaps undeserving. Someone who has just been given a compliment might make a polite show of modesty by saying, "I am humbled by your generosity," meaning he feels he really doesn't live up to the compliment. Or, someone might say "I am humbled" when he is confronted by someone or something he perceives to be superior, for instance: "I am humbled in the presence of his (Einstein's) genius." It's a judgment call about when to use this expression which should not be over-worked. You want to avoid giving the impression of false modesty.

The expression is often used in sports and other public contexts as noted here:

  • 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.


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The simple expression I am humbled is full of emotional, relational, and cultural complexity with ancient connotations.

To some extent, saying I am humbled is tantamount to saying I am in touch with my humanity, because the English words humble and human seem to share the same Latin root humus:


mid-15c., humain, humaigne,
from Old French humain, umain (adj.) "of or belonging to man" (12c.),
from Latin humanus "of man, human," also "humane, philanthropic, kind, gentle, polite; learned, refined, civilized,"
probably related to homo (genitive hominis) "man" (see homunculus) and to humus "earth," on notion of "earthly beings," as opposed to the gods
(compare Hebrew adam "man," from adamah "ground").


mid-13c., from Old French humble, earlier humele,
from Latin humilis "lowly, humble," literally "on the ground,"
from humus "earth." Senses of "not self-asserting" and "of low birth or rank" were both in Middle English

etymonline emphasis mine

In John Fletcher's 1623 play The Lovers' Progress, the heroine Calista declares both her honor and her humility to her friends, who support her in answering false charges of murder and adultery before the king of France:

The Envy, not the Love, of most that knew me',
This made me to presume too much, perhaps
Too proud, but I am humbled; and if now
I do make it apparent, I can bear
Adversity with such a constant patience as will set off my innocence...

emphasis mine

Calista maintains her honor by acknowledging how the humiliating accusations have impacted her, and skewed the perceptions of those who will judge her. Her humble attitude is repaid when Lisander appears to corroborate Calista's testimony, expose the real murderer, and receive Calista, by order of the king, as his wife.

The expression was rooted in a broad cultural sense of honor in religious duty, and specifically, fervent confession of failure to perform that religious duty, as revealed in The works of Robert Harris from 1654:

And this every childe of God is able to say of himself,
Either I leave all sin, or I would leave it;
either I perform all duty, or I would do it:
wherein I come short, I am humbled, and do bewaile my failings;
but verily this is the mark I aim at,
this is the white I shoot at ...

emphasis mine

This sense of honor in religious duty is steeped in mandates of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments:

... the princes of Israel and the king humbled themselves; and they said, The LORD is righteous. And when the Lord saw that they humbled themselves, the word of the Lord came to Shemaiah, saying, They have humbled themselves; therefore I will not destroy them, but I will grant them some deliverance ... 2 Chronicles 12:1-7

... Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and ... he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross... Philippians 2:1-11

... all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble. Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time... 1 Peter 5:1-7

King James Bible emphasis mine

The connection of honor and humility is not a purely religious notion. A quote from the atheist Richard Dawkins suggests the universal human thirst for sublime awe in something bigger and more powerful than self:

My eyes are constantly wide open to the extraordinary fact of existence. Not just human existence, but the existence of life and how this breathtakingly powerful process, which is natural selection, has managed to take the very simple facts of physics and chemistry and build them up to redwood trees and humans. emphasis mine

Another Dawkins quote suggests that even our best accomplishments have a way of knocking us down a notch:

Personally, I rather look forward to a computer program winning the world chess championship. Humanity needs a lesson in humility. emphasis mine

A post-Christian culture has evacuated the notion of religious duty in the minds of many, but the intimate cultural connection between honor and humility remains deeply embedded in our minds, our friendships and our language. Gabe McCarty describes George Harrison in Beatles' start: Hard lives, humble hearts by Billy Watkins:

"As polite a fellow as you could ever meet," McCarty said. "That was the first thing that struck you about him. He was real humble and didn't like talking about himself much. Everybody around town liked him."

The (Jackson, Miss.) Clarion-Ledger emphasis mine*

Religious and secular alike can be disingenuous in uttering the phrase I am humbled, but the data behind the corpus suggests the phrase is designed to connect the speaker to the listener at a deep heart level with any or all of the implicit suggestions below:

As a fellow human being, I:

  • was born naked and vulnerable
  • have struggled through adversity
  • owe a debt of thanks to those who helped me
  • have my fair share of failures
  • will pay my dues to family, friends and associates
  • will stay connected to something bigger than myself
  • expect to leave all my accomplishments behind in death

Malala Yousafzai's entire Nobel Peace Prize lecture expresses the essence of the phrase, but some snippets will suffice:

Bismillah hir rahman ir rahim. In the name of God, the most merciful, the most beneficent.

Your Majesties, ... dear sisters and brothers, today is a day of great happiness for me. I am humbled that the Nobel Committee has selected me for this precious award....

Dear brothers and sisters, I was named after the inspirational Malalai of Maiwand who is the Pashtun Joan of Arc....

Some people, call me a "Nobel Laureate" now. However, my brothers still call me that annoying bossy sister...

I tell my story, not because it is unique, but because it is not. It is the story of many girls. Today, I tell their stories too...

This is where I will begin, but it is not where I will stop. I will continue this fight until I see every child, every child in school...

emphasis mine

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A beautifully written answer, a pity you didn't post this a day earlier because this post answers the question. Thank you for posting the link to Malala's acceptance speech, that young woman is awe inspiring in the true sense of the word. Her speech made me feel humble. – Mari-Lou A Apr 21 at 6:15
Thank you for your clear and thorough answer! – karan.dodia Apr 21 at 15:50
Thank you for your generous reward, @karan.dodia! – ScotM Apr 21 at 16:25

"I'm amazed and humbled by all the attention it's received. So thank you," he said.

from OED - Humble, Middle English (from Old French, from Latin humilis)

low, lowly, from humus 'ground'

verb (with object)

Cause (someone) to feel less important or proud

To my British ears being humbled runs a risk of being judged disingenuous, disagreeably ingratiating and, ultimately, self-serving. The unlikeable character of Uriah Heep casts a long shadow and is easily brought to mind.

That said, the quote as given soundless artless and genuine to me. In which case I'd interpret his being humbled to mean simply that the speaker had no idea that so many people would be interested. This unexpected attention - neither sought nor anticipated - gave the speaker considerable pause for thought and reflection on his position in the world and the order of things.

I don't think there is any evidence in the quote to support the idea that the speaker had 'a pre-existing' sense of being either too modest or too proud. It seems entirely possible that the experience of provoking so much reaction on its own is where intense feeling of being small-in-an-immense-world comes from.

I also see no reason to suppose that the speaker feels in any way 'lower in station than all the people who took the time to promote/use the tool he wrote'.

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It's simply wrong to use "humbled" in this context; quit making excuses for it. This word has been misused by so many people - even educated people. I cringe when I hear it. Humbled means to be be lowered. It is wrong to accept a great honor and then say that you were "humbled" by this. Recently a man who was our parish priest at one time was named archbishop of Galveston-Houston. He said he was humbled by this. I can't believe how common this incorrect use of the word has become. It used to be uneducated athletes saying it, now it's a bishop?

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You're posting as if human beings behave logically. It's perfectly possible to accept an honour, knowing that you probably deserve it, while worrying that maybe you don't, or that maybe you won't live up to it, or maybe even just feeling shy and a bit overwhelmed, and realising how fragile the self-confidence was that you had before the honour was awarded. If you've managed to avoid that feeling then congratulations; you've probably never been surprised by the honours awarded to you. – Lunivore Mar 4 '12 at 20:01

The usage of the phrase "I am humbled" has gone through a lot of debate. Its being used by almost everyone to show gratitude or honor, which isn't what the phrase actually means. The true usage (which describes its intended meaning) is mostly in cases where you were defeated/embarrassed/brought down to earth by someone/something.

So in the example that you put here, the word has been wrongly placed and does not belong there.

P.S This answer is based purely on my knowledge of the English language and can be subject to changes by someone more knowledgeable, in which case I would be humbled !!

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As a native speaker of American English I've heard this phrase used a lot, usually in contexts where some honored person is making public remarks to an audience after receiving some formal recognition, reward, or even just a big and enthusiastic audience. I believe the quoted dictionary definitions, as observed by the OP and in other answers, do not really capture the actual idiomatic meaning of this phrase as commonly used in American English.

In short, it expresses a sort of shyness at receiving lauds. Many people are uncomfortable with great attention, even when it is praise. This may be especially true for people (like myself) who don't generally put much stock in public honors, and thus feel somewhat uncomfortable in being raised up in a way that they may not even feel is right -- not because they are not a worthy individual, but because the very act of naming 'heroes' seems inherently problematic.

A more literal construction would be, "I feel uncomfortable with all the attention. In fact, I don't really like it when people make other people into big heroes, and now you're doing that to me."

That's a mouthful, but I honestly believe that is the essence of what is meant when people say the words "I'm humbled by ____". It does not mean the person is being humiliated (quite the opposite), or their station reduced. Nor does it mean they don't think their actions or character are meritorious. Rather it's a discomfort (even if feigned) at the attention itself.

I add two caveats:

First, this construction can easily sound disingenuous. Whether it is perceived by the audience as a genuine expression of being uncomfortable with public praise, or as a fake humility while the person actually soaking it in, will depend a great deal on non-verbal cues such as facial expression, intonation, posture, and of course biases of the audience.

Second, this phrase is so common in these sorts of situations, that many people may say it without specifically meaning anything. They say it because it's the cultural norm to say those words in a public statement accepting an honor. Naturally when the phrase is said in automatic way like this it can easily lead to seeming disingenuous.

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This is the same problem that has happened with many actor vs. acted verbs. We have changed the verb into an adjective over time. The original statement would have been

I'm amazed and made humble by...

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