~ Posted by Robert Butler, July 30th 2012

On Friday morning the comedian David Walliams carried the Olympic torch on the leg between Camden and Islington. He said, "I felt really humbled..."

That evening the rower Sir Steve Redgrave carried the torch into the stadium. He said the experience was "humbling".

Later that evening, Thomas Heatherwick's intricate cauldron—with its 204 copper petals—provided a spectacular climax to the opening ceremony. Heatherwick said, "I am humbled..."

There's something a little bit starry and counterintuitive going on here. If anyone else were asked to carry the torch or design the cauldron, the last feeling imaginable would be that of having been given a lowly task to perform. You would feel pretty darn special: honoured, yes; humbled, no. It would require a fairly mighty ego to be "humbled" by taking part in the Olympics.

But this has become the modern way of displaying modesty. Salman Rushdie was "humbled" to receive a knighthood. So was the golfer Nick Faldo. The actor Patrick Stewart said his knighthood was "the most humbling experience of his life."  Each of them has pulled off a linguistic trick—to be humbled by being ennobled.

The "Chambers 21st Century Dictionary" gives three possible meanings for "humble":

    1 having a low opinion of oneself and one's abilities
    2 having a low position in society
    3 lowly, modest or unpretentious

One person who has used "humble" more accurately was Rupert Murdoch last year when he interrupted his son James's apology to the Select Committee to say that this was "the most humble day of my life".

Even that wasn't entirely convincing. As Jon Stewart pointed out on the "Daily Show", "Not so humble that you couldn't wait for your turn to talk."

Robert Butler is online editor of Intelligent life