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December 9th, 2020

If you are unfamiliar with the concept of a Rivalnym, it is something developed by Tinkered Thinking to address a certain class of words and concepts that fall in a strange place between Synonyms and Antonyms.  A rivalnym is a word, or rather, a pair of words that are somewhat synonymous in literal meaning, but opposite in terms of the emotional valence we ascribe to the thing being described.



A pair of words that makes a good example is Nervous and Excited



One is generally positive, that is, excited, and nervous is generally more negatively valence, and yet, what registers our excitement?  Our nerves.  And when we are nervous, is it not because our nerves are in an excited state?



So given this sly structure that seems to exist between antonyms and synonyms, how can this pair of words be understood:








The enormous similarity between these words simply can’t be ignored.  They both derive from the same root word:  Humility, humiliating and humble all come from the Late Latin humiliate from humilis, meaning “lowly,” literally “on the ground,” from humus meaning “earth,” which originates from a Proto-Indo European root also meaning “earth”.  


On is perhaps rightfully reminded of the image of a religious adherent on their knees, perhaps bowing low to the ground.  Such an act is literally humble because of an actual proximity to the earth.


So how is it that two words like humble and humiliating -while having sprung from the same mother origin- be so different in their meaning?  If both humility and humiliation result in some sort of lowly position, perhaps quite literally to the ground, or figuratively in terms of emotional experience, why is one generally regarded as positive and the other negative?  These two words fit the structure of Rivalnyms perfectly because of this subtle yet extreme difference.


The other verb in this family of earth-sprung words, humbling, helps parse the difference.  For example: is it humiliating to be humbled?  Hard to say.  Perhaps in some cases, but certainly not in all situations.  


What causes a person to reflect on an experience and say ‘That was humbling’, rather than ‘That was humiliating’ has to do with the interplay of perspective between the person who is the subject of the verb and exactly what is administering that verb.


For example, it can be quite humbling when a project that has taken a lot of work fails to achieve it’s planned end.  But what exactly is the cause of this failure?  Quite hard to say.  The best answer in many cases is simply that the nature of reality was the cause.  


The switch to humiliation really hinges on the perspective and involvement of others.  If someone is trying to humiliate someone else, then this intention goes a long way in terms of defining the situation.  But notice the difference between a bitter lover posting revealing photos of a painter in an attempt to humiliate versus a chess player who crushes their opponent without gloating nor indicating any kind of pleasure other than the opportunity to simply play a round of the game.  One situation is humiliating, while the other most likely evokes humility in the checkmated player.


One important relationship to highlight between these words is that it’s generally very difficult to humiliate someone who has a lot of humility.


Humility functions like a shield that has nothing to protect.  The attack often backfires, having nothing else to hit, making the attacker look like a misdirected fool.


Interpreting the situation with a literal definition of the words: it’s impossible to bring someone lower when they’re already on the ground.


Of course it’s possible to humiliate someone who is on the ground, but thinking this is an false mix of both literal and figurative.  The figurative equivalent would be that despite all efforts of humiliating someone who is on the ground, if that person has sufficient humility, then the attack has no effect on their state of mind and feeling.


As with most Rivalnyms, the divide and connection here has to do with perspective.  Just as we can anxiously or eagerly await a date who is on their way, we can interpret the events that come our way as humbling or humiliating.  In both circumstances the anxiety that tips our consciousness into the negative has to do with the perspective of others that we imagine.  


This is at the core of the ubiquitous advice to ‘not care what anyone else thinks’.  The reason is because if you care too much about the perspectives of others, then your interpretation of events is more likely to lapse into the negative, into an anxiousness and a sense of humiliation and particularly: embarrassment.  We might wonder if the word ‘embarrassment’ is part of a Rivalnym pair?  What’s the positive form of embarrassment?


Probably just an ability to laugh at yourself.


An examination of rivalnyms help illuminate some of the subtle structures that exist within language.  They represent principally unconscious choices in perspective, often grouped around a sense of pessimism or optimism. Our perspective on the world determines how we describe that world, but the opposite might hold true: if we change the way we describe the world, we might be able to shift our perspective of it.

Check out the Tinkered Thinking   Reading List

Dive in to the Archives

Podcast Ep. 969: Rivalnym: Humility

Tinkered Thinking

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