Julia Driver (Uneasy Virtue, 2011: 16ff, 114-5) claims there is a paradox of self-reference for modesty, but not humility. That is, it’s self-contradictory to say, “I’m modest,” but not “I’m humble.” She doesn’t give much argument other than to claim that humility has to do with being of an inferior status, so one can correctly attribute that status to oneself. But you can’t claim to be modest without contradiction. I’m not convinced, but let’s set that aside. What is the relationship between humility and modesty? Are they the same, closely related, or completely different? Modesty is the second synonym listed for ‘humility’ listed on thesaurus.com. So they seem at least related. Google Ngrams is one of my new favorite toys. It checks its database of over five million books for the frequency of a term (or terms). Plugging in ‘humility’ and ‘modesty,’ you get the following:

chart of humility and modesty usage over time

This suggests to me that the two concepts have fallen (and risen back a bit) together in social importance (assuming how much they’re talked about in books is any indication of that). So it seems they’re related at least and not altogether different. Maybe then there is a paradox of self-reference for humility. What do you think? What do these terms mean and are they any different?