It’s one of those things, like that bit of food stuck between your teeth, that when you’ve noticed it once, you keep on noticing it. And, in the case of this awards season trend, it’s also incredibly annoying. It’s hard to say when it started, but the evidence suggests it’s getting worse. Ahead of this year’s Oscars, a mere nomination has been enough for Justin Timberlake (recognised for his important work on the soundtrack of animated children’s movie Trolls) and a handful of other stars to describe themselves as ‘humbled’.
The gender-fluid actor Kelly Mantle pronounced himself ‘humbled’ just to be considered for nomination for his role in Confessions of a Womanizer. In the event, he was not actually nominated. In December, British actor Dev Patel even said he was ‘humbled’ to be nominated for the Golden Globes. And, to speak in football parlance, everybody knows that the Globes is just the pre-season friendly to the Oscars’ Champions League final.
If the word’s ubiquity wasn’t enough, its use in this context is especially irksome to anyone with a little Latin or a passing interest in etymology. They know that its root is ‘humus’ meaning ground or ‘humilis’ meaning low or lowly. If you are humbled, then, you are knocked down, brought low.
So, when multimillionaires at the pinnacle of their profession, draped in tens of thousands of dollars worth of designer clothing, go up to collect a 24-carat gold-plated statue on a stage that’s quite literally raised above the great and good of the planet’s most glamourous industry, and then have the gall to describe themselves as ‘humbled’… well, it’s utterly infuriating.
What about the people who put them there? No, not the veneered super-producers who sit there grinning as proceedings unfold. I mean the millions of normal people who spend increasingly extortionate amounts of their hard-earned cash on cinema tickets just to enjoy a brief hit of escapism from their comparatively humdrum lives. If the stars are ‘humbled’, what does that make us?
If the glitterati really must use the word, then they should at least have the good grace to save it for a post-ceremony tweet as Leonardo DiCaprio did last year. Or, better still, back up their word with deed like Adele did at the Grammys earlier this month. After saying that she was ‘humbled’, she broke her award in two and gave one half to Beyoncé, who she thought deserved it more. On Sunday, if any Oscar winner claims to be humbled but then fails to either return their award or act in an Adele-like manner, they should have their victory rescinded immediately.
Best of all would be if these people avoided using the word altogether. I know that one of the first things that flashes up when you Google ‘what to say when accepting an award’ is ‘Thank you – I am pleased, honoured and humbled’. I appreciate that a tearful John Wayne said ‘I feel very grateful, very humble’, in his 1970 Oscar acceptance speech, and that’s recognised as one of the best ever. It’s also true that researchers at the University of Queensland found that people who appeared to suppress pride after winning something were seen in a more positive light. But there’s a big difference between stifling a grin to protect someone’s feelings and disingenuously claiming to feel a certain way. Anyone who remembers Gwyneth Paltrow’s speech in 1999 will know what I mean.
There are different theories or definitions of truth but, among philosophers, the most popular is that truth exists in the ‘correspondence’ between language and the reality that it describes. So, by saying that they’ve been humbled when, really, exactly the opposite has happened, don’t these film stars risk being complicit in the current post-truth revolution?
With Donald Trump’s conspicuously small finger now on the nuclear button, there are likely to be one or two political statements delivered from the podium on Sunday night. But here’s a plea to all of Sunday’s winners: Let’s make acceptance speeches great again. This year, the way we use language might be more important than ever before.