Even English native speakers are sometimes uncertain of the real meaning and nuances of words, especially if they often hear and see the terms misused. Two such confusing words, which are even listed as synonyms in thesauruses though they convey different nuances, are “humble” and “modest.”
The difference between “modest” and “humble” is that “modest” implies moderation and generally relates to people with a level-headed and accurate view of themselves. “Humble,” can mean the opposite of proud or arrogant, but it can also carry the connotation of being submissive or lowly.
Using “humble” or “modest” incorrectly could convey the wrong message, so read on and find out all you need to know about using “humble” and “modest” correctly.
The Origins and Original Usage of Humble and Modest
When one understands the etymology of the words, the difference in their use becomes clearer. Although both words originated in Latin, they have different root words and meanings.
The word “humble” came from the Latin word humilitas. It is related to the adjective humilis, derived from humus (earth), and we might translate this as “grounded” or “from the earth.”
“Humble” came to English in the 13th century via the Old French adjective umble. Since then, “humble” has been used in English for persons who are submissive, respectful, obedient, and not self-asserting — literally people “on the ground” (source).
Since the 14th century, English speakers have also used “humble” for things lowly in kind, condition, state, or amount, labeling people of low birth or rank as humble people.
It was customary in the late 15th century for the so-called humble people to render themselves humble by bending, bowing, or kneeling in the presence of the privileged and rich.
The word “modest” also came from Latin via Old French. In the 14th century, the English word “modest” derived from the French modeste, which, again, came from the Latin word modestus. Modestus means “keeping within measure.”
The implication is that a modest person is sober, gentle, not improper, and pure in conduct. Since the late 1500s, “modest” has also been used for attire — mostly female attire — that is not showy, excessive, or extreme.
Historically, its meaning was more closely related to the balancing of extremes. “Modest” had the sense of not excessive and extreme but, rather, moderate and within means.
In the 18th century, everyone wanted to be modest. Creatures of poetry, dramas, visual arts, and even architecture strived to be seen as modest — without any extremes.
“Modest” is a word that has had its use and meaning shifted over time. Nowadays, it commonly signifies a personal attribute, and we might see it used in a sentence like “having a moderate estimate of one’s abilities or achievements” (source).
The Biblical Roots and Meaning of Humble
The Bible is one of the oldest books in which we can find “humble,” “humility,” and related words. We have to keep the biblical use in mind, as the word has a slightly different connotation in the Bible than in current everyday use.
In the Old and the New Testament, humility or humbleness involves gentleness, and the biblical authors use it to describe the quality of being courteous and respectful to others (source).
These words’ opposites appear as aggressiveness, arrogance, boastfulness, and vanity.
In the biblical context, the Greek word for humble implies dependence and lowliness, but also that our value comes from God instead of being intrinsic to us (source).
When “humble” is used in the biblical sense, it does not deny a person’s value placed on him by God.
This is in contrast with the Medieval English use of the word, where many used it more in line with its Latin roots to refer to a person who is not self-asserting but is of low birth or rank.
This apparent difference in meaning illustrates how difficult it is to have exact definitions for words that will stand the test of time and how “modest” and “humble,” despite their differences, sometimes have much the same meaning.
Comparative Dictionary Definitions of Humble and Modest
To determine the differences in meaning between “humble” and “modest” in current everyday use, we will have a look at various definitions and sentence examples from dictionaries, grammar books, and other linguistic guidelines.
Before proceeding to more detail, let’s recap what we’ve said about the obvious differences:
|Original Latin word||Humilitas||Modestus|
|Old French word||Umble||Modeste|
|Part of Speech||Adjective and verb||Only adjective|
|Positive/negative nuances||Generally negative connotation||Generally positive connotation|
|Key difference when applied to people.||Generally used for people with a low view of their abilities, and viewing themselves as weak in an area, even if they are not.||Generally describes people with a level-headed and accurate view of themselves.|
Now we can look at various dictionary definitions. Although the basic information in most dictionaries and other sources is similar, every source’s explanation emphasizes different nuances in the meaning.
The more nuances and examples we study, the better we can use the words correctly.
Humble and Modest as Adjectives
We’ll start with the role these words play as adjectives, which are words that we use to describe something or someone.
According to the Collins Dictionary, humble people are not proud and, most importantly, don’t believe that they are inherently better than other people.
People with low social status are also often described as humble. A humble place or thing is, according to this dictionary, ordinary and not special in any way (source).
The Cambridge Dictionary also emphasizes that “humble” refers to not believing that you are important, as in the sentence “At that time, he was just a humble mechanic” (source).
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes “humble” as not proud, insignificant, unpretentious but not costly, arrogant, or assertive.
If someone offers a humble apology, they give it in the spirit of deference. When used as an indication of hierarchy, it means the position is insignificant or unpretentious.
Low Social Status or Poor Background
If we should say that someone started his career as a humble fisherman, the word “humble” carries the nuance that being a fisherman is of low social status.
Similarly, talking about somebody’s humble background is often only a mere polite substitute for “poor background.”
Ordinary Inanimate Objects
If something is made from a piece of humble kitchen foil, “humble” is used to indicate “ordinary” or “commonly used” (source).
More Ambiguous Meaning
The Collins Dictionary also indicates another use of the word — to be polite, people might use humble in a phrase such as “in my humble opinion.”
In this context, you would have to judge the person’s tone of voice or the larger context to really understand what they meant.
They may genuinely feel that their opinion is unimportant, or they might use the term sarcastically to emphasize that their opinion is important even you think it isn’t.
The Collins Dictionary describes “modest” in different ways. If you describe people as modest, you approve of them because they do not tell you much of their achievements, e.g., “He’s modest, as well as being a very efficient worker.”
When a woman, her clothes, or her behavior are described as modest, this indicates she is avoiding doing or wearing anything that might cause others to have untoward feelings about her.
Something is also modest when it is not large or expensive, e.g., a one-night stay in a modest hotel that costs around $35.
A modest amount, rate, or improvement is fairly small, e.g., you don’t get rich, but you might make a modest living out of it.
The Merriam Webster Dictionary indicates that modest does not mean something is inferior or that someone is poor or has a lack of confidence. It describes somebody who is decent in thought, conduct, and dress.
Their examples make it clear that if you are a modest person, you are not too proud or confident about yourself or your abilities.
When applied to material things, it only implies limited in size and not extremely expensive.
If, as an example, someone makes reference to a modest house, it is not implying that the people living in the house are poor or of low-class. It only describes the house as fairly small and inexpensive.
Humble as a Verb
Unlike “modest,” we can use “humble” as a verb. With the definitions and synonyms given by Merriam-Webster for the verb “humble,” one can get a better perspective on the adjective.
The synonyms for “humble” as the verb in “They humble his work” include words like degrade, demean, discredit, disgrace, and dishonor. To humble someone generally means you are undermining or harming that person’s power, independence, or prestige (source).
The Oxford Learner’s Dictionary defines the verb “humble” to indicate downgrading as in “He was humbled by his many ordeals” and “Wales was humbled at Cardiff Arms Park by Romania” (source).
The Oxford Learner’s Dictionary: Humble vs. Modest
The Oxford Learner’s Dictionary adds the nuances of “not large or special in any way” with regards to the word “humble.” In some instances, “humble” will imply poverty, while “modest” will only imply something small.
He is living in a humble farmhouse.
He is living in a modest farmhouse.
Here, the meaning is that it is a small farmhouse, although it potentially implies those who dwell there are poor and of little standing.
Compare this with “He is living in a modest farmhouse,” where it only means a fairly small house with a loving family living in it and has no connotation to poverty.
The tone and attitude of the person who says this will indicate what they actually mean by humble in this context. Some could mean it in a very condescending way, while others may only mean that the farmhouse was simple and unassuming.
Rising from Humble or Modest Origins
In some cases, using humble can mean believing it’s not likely you can achieve something while using modest would mean you know it can be done with limited means.
Pete and Mary’s company has worked its way up from humble beginnings to one of the largest in the country.
Pete and Mary’s company has worked its way up from modest beginnings to one of the largest in the country.
This implies that the company was nothing special in the beginning and few would have had the foresight to see they could develop.
If the company has worked its way up from modest beginnings, the company’s owners are more likely to have more confidence they could develop even if they started out small.
In English-speaking cultures where there is a high degree of social stratification, the following phrases using “humble” could imply that nobody thought something good could have developed.
He is a man of humble birth/origins. – A man not destined for more.
He has a humble occupation. – A lowly paid occupation with no prestige value.
She is the daughter of a humble shopkeeper. – shopkeeping is seen as a common job.
These sentences take on a quite different meaning if we use “modest” as the adjective. As an example, “A man of modest origin” only means that the man was not born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth but still has the ability to excel.
The Difference Between a Modest and a Humble Person
With all these definitions and examples given, we’ll end this article by summarizing the difference between a modest and a humble person.
Modest people behave and dress in a very decent manner, without extremes but always in good taste. They are self-confident without boasting and bragging about themselves, and they tackle problems and tasks patiently.
Modest people generally don’t undervalue or overvalue themselves. Being modest refers to your behavior.
Humble people, on the other hand, have a low view of their own abilities. They tend to view themselves as weak and lowly and underestimate their abilities and value. Generally, humble people show deference and a willingness to submit to others. Being humble refers to your ego.
However, we must also remember that, in biblical terms, a humble person is courteous to others and regards others as more important than themself but without denying their own God-given value.
Apart from “humble” and “modest,” there are many other English words that are incorrectly used interchangeably, like plausible and possible. Read more about these words here.
Be careful when using words when you are not sure what meaning and nuance are embedded in them. With “humble” and “modest,” you might imply someone is poor or lowly without intending to in certain contexts.
Remember that, as a rule of thumb, “humble” has more potential for use in a degrading, negative way, while “modest” is not so negative. Being modest generally does not mean being poor or lowly, but humble can.
Two authoritative sources to use if you are in doubt about the meaning or nuances of a word are
The Oxford New Essential Dictionary, and Dreyer’s English. Both are available from Amazon.