Humility and Humiliation

By Maeve Maddox

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I heard a television interview subject express compassion for previously independent Gulf Coast fishermen who’d had to “go through the humility” of accepting financial help.

The word wanted in that context was humiliation, not “humility.”

Wanting to see if it were a common error, I did a web search. Sure enough, I found more examples:

…each member of our family suffered humility and loss of face in public

…having to submit to the humility of having to ask for new shoes

…the humility of having to ask for so many “payment options”

…hope they never know the humility of having to ask for help.

In some religious writing the words humility and humiliation may overlap, but in modern secular usage, the words have distinct meanings.

humiliation: the act of humiliating or condition of being humiliated; abasement.

humility: The quality of being humble or having a lowly opinion of oneself; meekness, lowliness: the opposite of pride or haughtiness.

Humiliation is a bad thing. It’s a painful emotion that we feel when we’ve been shamed. No one should be treated in such an unfeeling, bureaucratic way as to be humiliated.

Humility is a good thing. It is a virtue that has become very rare in a culture that even goes so far as to begin sentences with me and myself. A humble person gives credit where it’s due. A humble person acknowledges others and respects their dignity, talents, and opinions. Humility is not weakness; it’s a spirit of self-examination that prevents one from becoming selfish and arrogant.

The word humiliation applies to a negative state of debasement inflicted by persons or conditions outside oneself.

Verbs that go with the word humility are not “suffer” or “endure,” but “practice” or “cultivate.”

NOTE: One often sees the word “humbleness,” but it seems wasteful to use a -ness form when the distinctive abstract noun humility exists.

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3 Responses to “Humility and Humiliation”

  • Kim Tyndall

    As I read this posting, I stopped on this phrase:

    “Wanting to see if it were a common error, …”

    Is that correct? I would have used “was” not “were” to agree with “it” which refers to “a common error” which I see as singular.

    Your work is always so carefully edited…I’m questioning my own judgment! Am I right or wrong?

    Thank you for all the wonderful things I have learned over the years!

  • Maeve

    I vacillated between “was” and “were” because I knew that many readers would find the “were” odd. I decided to go with “were” because when I began my web search, I thought the error was probably not common, hence, contrary to fact. If I’d gone with “was,” perhaps someone would have asked why I hadn’t used the subjunctive.

    I guess I haven’t quite accepted that the subjunctive has gone the way of “whom” and the dodo. Here’s a related post:

    Thanks for your comment.

  • Vincent

    Hate to see people who misuse meanings. Without having proper knowledge of such terms, one should not put something into speech.

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