Grammar Moses: A lesson in humility
Sometimes, words are abused so severely that they come to mean the opposite of what originally was intended.
Once upon a time, something that was "awesome" was to be feared. It's become the "groovy" of the 21st century.
"Awful" used to define something that inspired awe, something that was worthy of admiration. Now it has a wholly negative connotation.
It's as if "awesome" and "awful" were caught up in the crossing of the streams in "Ghostbusters."
Another word well on its way to being turned upside down is "humble."
I received a news release recently from a Chicago politician that read, in part: "When the media publicized the number of sexual violence reports in Chicago Public Schools last year, we knew something had to be done. It's humbling to know my law is already making a difference only two months after being signed."
In what topsy-turvy world does someone issue a news release about "her" law making a difference in "just" two months and describe it as "humbling"?
This one, folks.
Politicians, people who give speeches at awards shows and athletes are often guilty of talking about their humility, of being humbled, when it's almost always false modesty.
They're rightfully proud of their accomplishments, but saying "I'm proud to have won this because I've practiced my jump shot eight hours a day for the past 10 years" sounds, well, braggy.
I get that. I just don't like it.
Perhaps a more genuine way to express oneself would be: "I'm honored to have been recognized by my peers."
When I post on Facebook that my news crew has won a gazillion awards, I don't say I'm humbled by our showing. I say I'm "proud" of it.
If there is anything humbling about it, it's that most of these folks are a lot more talented than I.
I hasten to add that not all famous people who answer questions of reporters, post on social media or send out news releases misuse "humble."
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, a rather self-assured guy, got it right after an embarrassing defeat to the lowly L.A. Chargers. "This is a good slice of humble pie for us," he said. "We're kind of rolling, 7-1, and starting to listen to the chatter maybe a little too much. I think this will be a good thing for us."
I was humbled this week to receive some feedback on last week's column that addressed whether a particular date can be the "usual" first day of measurable snow, the "average" day or something else.
"Jim, you are 0 for 2 in your explanation of the first day of snow," wrote reader Tom Kegel. "To specify any particular date as the 'usual' date on which this occurs is ridiculous, when are probably as many as 40 or more different days on which the first such snow has occurred.
(Note to self: It probably ought to occur on that date at least half the time to qualify as the "usual" date.)
"Further, your dismissal of Nov. 17 as an 'average' is also wrong. Nov. 17 is the 321st day of the year (ignoring leap years). Using this metric, if you observe the day number of the year on which the first snowfall occurs, you can indeed take an average of all of those numbers, and evidently you would get 321 by this method, which corresponds to Nov. 17. This year we had snow on day number 304, Oct. 31."
Cliff Darnall is a former math teacher and English teacher.
"Of the various choices you discussed to replace those words, I would have chosen 'median' over 'modal,'" he wrote. "It seems to me more likely that Nov. 17 is right in the middle of the range of dates (the median) rather than the date that happened to have the most hits over the observation period (the mode). Of course, one cannot know for sure without seeing the data, and the two could possibly be the same."
He went on to echo Tom's point about using dates as data points and averaging them.
"In any case, I wasn't bothered at all by the newspaper's use of 'usual' in that context, though I think 'typical' would also be an appropriate choice.
TYPICAL! Count on an English teacher to come up with the perfect answer.
Aaron Rodgers and I will now split our humble pie.
• Jim Baumann is vice president/managing editor of the Daily Herald. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Put Grammar Moses in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at facebook.com/baumannjim.