This is an unusual Grammatical Pet Peeve, in that I am acknowledging up front that I am in some sense wrong. Let me explain.

I hate the word ‘humbleness’. To me it sounds and seems like an ignorant back-formation on a level with ‘misle’ as a verb meaning ‘to deceive’, by a back-formation from ‘misled’. To my mind, it seems that the correct word ought to be ‘humility’. There are two main reasons I feel this way.

The first, as I stated above, is that my best guess as to the origins of the word ‘humbleness’ is that it arose because someone, ignorant of the word ‘humility’, simply tacked the common ‘-ness’ ending onto the word ‘humble’.

The second reason is that it means exactly the same thing, for all I can tell, as the older and more correct-sounding ‘humility’. It may just be a personal preference, but I don’t like our language to have two different words for the same thing. It’s OK in my mind to have words with very similar meanings, but I don’t like it when they have identical meanings. It grates with me. I think it grates with the language’s Geist, as well, because it seems to me that such words tend to differentiate themselves subtly by acquiring different connotations(think of ‘knight’ and ‘chevalier’, the latter more mentally associated with notions of honor, the former of battle, at least in my mind) over time.

The trouble is that by all the authorities I’ve found, I’m wrong, and ‘humbleness’ is a perfectly acceptable synonym for ‘humility’. I write this post, therefore, primarily to invite comments. Am I wrong about the origins of this word? Has it merely become acceptable due to widespread use, despite its ignoble beginning? Does it grate with you the way it grates with me?

If you’re interested in this discussion, leave me a comment. I await your responses, and I remain ever

Your Humble Servant,

Samuel C. Starrett

 

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