Reluctancy and Humbleness

By Maeve Maddox

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Synonyms are good. They enable us to narrow a concept to the exact connotation we wish to convey.

Unnecessary synonyms, on the other hand, weaken writing and speech by replacing a strong word with an invented or obsolete equivalent.

Reluctancy and humbleness are two such “unnecessary synonyms” I’ve noticed recently.

Recent examples of reluctancy in the media:

What we see quite a bit is that there is a reluctancy to change at the end user level. —The CEO of a “maintenance and asset management solution” business.

[A player] kept getting walloped either because of bad offensive line play or a reluctancy on his part to get rid of the ball. —sports article Nov 2019.

The researcher noticed the reluctancy of the courts to become involved in school-related decisions… —Research review on ERIC [Education Resources Information Center].

In these examples, the word reluctancy is being used to mean, “unwillingness” or “disinclination.” The better choice is reluctance.

Latin reluctari, “to struggle against, resist, make opposition,” gives us reluctant, reluctantly, and reluctance.

Here are the examples without “reluctancy”:

What we see quite a bit is that there is a reluctance to change at the end user level

[A player] kept getting walloped either because of bad offensive line play or a reluctance on his part to get rid of the ball.

The researcher noticed the reluctance of the courts to become involved in school-related decisions…

Humbleness is another word that grates on the ears of careful writers. Here are three recent examples:

Meanwhile, Morrison also garnered a lot of respect in social media for his humbleness. —Item on TV station website.

In a society where there are so many different beliefs, I just appreciate his humbleness and how well he embraces all people. —An article about Fred Rogers on the Liberty University site.

A lack of humbleness and empathy in this situation can lead to qualities such as self-confidence and self-assurance becoming pride, arrogance and high-handedness, which characterise a doctor suffering from HS [Hubris Syndrome]. —Abstract at US National Library of Medicine.

The word humble derives from Latin humilis, “low.”

As an adjective, humble can mean “low, modest, unpretentious.” People often use it humorously in reference to themselves or their possessions, perhaps describing themselves as “a humble editor,” or their residence as their “humble home.” Sometimes it’s used with an edge of bitterness, as in “Sure, I’m just a humble taxpayer. Why should I have a say in how my money is spent?”

In the context of a social hierarchy, a person of “humble birth” is one not born to wealth or high social position.

As a verb, to humble means, “to lower in dignity or standing.” The verb can be used transitively to describe what one does to others: “He sought to humble all his competitors,” or reflexively, to describe an act of humility toward another: “Huck humbled himself to Jim when he realized how much he had distressed him.”

Lately, the verb humble has become a popular substitute for grateful. Being forced to spend a night in jail might cause someone to feel “humbled,” but I’d guess that being elected to office or winning a coveted literary prize would bestow feelings of delight and gratitude.

The abstract noun humility conveys the opposite of pride, haughtiness, and pretentiousness

Here are the “humbleness” examples recast:

Meanwhile, Morrison also garnered a lot of respect in social media for his humility.

In a society where there are so many different beliefs, I just appreciate his humility and how well he embraces all people.

A lack of humility and empathy in this situation can lead to qualities such as self-confidence and self-assurance becoming pride, arrogance and high-handedness…

Both both reluctancy and humbleness are “in the dictionary,” but in this century, reluctance and humility are the better choices.

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3 Responses to “Reluctancy and Humbleness”

  • SHERRY ROTH

    Yeah, no. I have no issues with ditching the non-word reluctancy and using the proper word, reluctance. However, I do take issue with ditching the word humbleness, which I feel rightly conveys a sense of being humble, as opposed to the word humility, which conveys a sense of being ashamed, humiliated, made fun of, etc. So I think the word humbleness is necessary. I think there is a distinction.

  • Maeve

    Sherry Roth: Personally, I don’t associate shame with the word “humility.” I feel that’s what “humiliation” is for. To me, “humility” conveys the absence of pride or arrogance. However, I believe that many speakers share your view.

  • TheBlueBird11

    Maeve, BTW nice to see you again 🙂
    First I looked up “humble” in my Roget’s Thesaurus (FWIW, it is the 1987 revised edition…): It goes all the way from sort of neutral (shy, simple, docile, unpretentious) to slightly negative (meek, self-effacing) to really negative (lowly, low-born, insignificant).
    Then I looked up “humility,” and again, modesty, meekness, submissiveness, shyness, all the way to subservience, lowliness and self-abasement. AND, HUMBLENESS is given as a synonym LOL Yet the word “humbleness” does not appear as a main entry.
    I think humbleness is a positive attribute that doesn’t rob the bearer of self-respect and self-esteem. Humility seems (to me) to cast the person in a negative light of making himself/herself lower than others. because of something shameful. Maybe newer editions of Roget’s have a different take. Anyway, no worries. There are way more important things of concern in this world than the existence (or non-) of the word humbleness. People could use a little more humbleness these days…and humility too…

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