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humblebrag also humble brag, humble-brag

noun [countable]

a statement in which you pretend to be modest but which you are really using as a way of telling people about your success or achievements


verb [intransitive]

humblebragger also humble bragger, humble-bragger

noun [countable]

'Gabriell was quick to reveal that despite never paying attention in history class, he still got an A, marking what was probably the first non-culinary humble brag in Top Chef history.'

A.V. Club, Toronto 10th April 2012

'I suppose this is the bit where I should humblebrag along the lines of '1500 pages, all those amazing writers and they choose little ol' me for the first extract!', but London phonies have ruined self-deprecation so I'll keep the actual self-loathing for myself.'

The Guardian 7th April 2012

'I am a humble-bragger. I like the fact that whatever I'm wearing looks expensive but isn't. It increases its value in my eyes.'

The National 5th April 2012

"Wow, I can't believe that a rubbishy little article like mine has been published in a national newspaper!""I threw that cake together in half an hour, so was amazed when it won 'best in show'." The contexts might differ from writing or baking, but this sort of comment, in which a person manages to broadcast their achievements but airbrushes them with a touch of modesty, is something that we're all guilty of from time to time. It seems then that in recent months we've filled a gap in the lexicon for describing these snapshots of fake humility, which are now referred to as humblebrags.

in a humblebrag the speaker makes a deliberate, direct reference to something that they've achieved, but then tries to play it down

A humblebrag is a statement, written or spoken, in which a person boasts about something while at the same time managing to couch what they've said in a kind of self-deprecating guise. A humblebrag is a little different from the concept of false modesty, in which a person openly de-values their achievements ('Oh, it was nothing …', 'Well, it wasn't difficult, anyone could have done it …') while silently feeling pretty pleased with themselves. In a humblebrag, by contrast, the speaker makes a deliberate, direct reference to something that they've achieved, but then tries to play it down, either by adding a perspective that belittles it or juxtaposing it with some other, more mundane aspect of their lives.

As with so many language innovations these days, social media have speeded up the word humblebrag's journey into popular usage. There's even a Twitter account specifically dedicated to the collection of humblebrags, many of which come from celebrities, who have more than the average number of achievements to shout about and therefore appear to be particularly frequent offenders. Here are a couple of (anonymous) examples: "Steven Spielberg just name checked me and …, I jumped off the bed and hurt my thigh."   "How can I still be nervous about red carpets after 10 years… Eeek!", "Christmas shopping today…I haven't been home in 3weeks…I'm blessed to give better presents then [sic] I receive…"

But the humblebrag is by no means the preserve of the rich and famous, popping up in the instant messages and status updates of ordinary folk who decide to share their achievements with as many people as possible, often because they can't work out what else to say. Arguably, the humblebrag is a product of the social media revolution, in which people talk about themselves all the time but the nuances of body language and facial expressions they'd use in the real world have to be substituted by words which convey: 'I want to tell you about this, but I don't want you to think I'm showing off.'

Background – humblebrag

The word humblebrag was coined in 2011 by American comedian Harris Wittels, who set up the corresponding Twitter account and currently compiles a monthly top ten ranking of the most shameless humblebrags. The American Dialect Society voted humblebrag its 'most useful' word of the year for 2011, and derived forms humblebrag as intransitive verb, and noun humblebragger (a person who regularly does this), have also begun to appear.

The term is of course a combination of adjective humble, meaning 'not thinking that you are better than others' and verb brag meaning 'to talk about your achievements in an annoying way'. With these two opposing perspectives cemented into one word, it could be argued that humblebrag represents a new example of what is formally referred to as an oxymoron. An oxymoron is an expression containing words with opposite meanings, more well-known examples of which include bitter-sweet, deafening silence and organized chaos.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 16th July 2012.

Open Dictionary

Dunning-Kruger effect

the phenomenon by which an incompetent person is too incompetent to understand his own incompetence

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