The 'H' In IMHO Does Not Mean Humble or Honest

We all know what imho means.

A battered copy of 'The Macquarie Concise Dictionary'
Tim Wimborne / Reuters

It’s impossible not to like imho.

If you’ve spent any time online, you’ve seen the word at least a dozen times. It usually sets off an opinion from the text around it: Those jeans don’t look very good, imho.

But it’s a pliable little devil. Depending on its context, imho can function as a gentle nudge or a punch in the gut. It can ease you into the persuasive mode: This is all smart but imho you need to talk to him again. It can spring-load sarcasm: imho this column is Absolutely Correct. It can set off a punch line: Nuclear war sounds pretty bad imho. Much like lol or omg, it can convey a huge range of possible meanings. It can even be a little phatic.

Yet on Wednesday imho suffered an apparent crisis. Employees at BuzzFeed reportedly could not agree on what the letters in imho represented. Some staffers claimed they meant “in my humble opinion.” Others said that imho stood for “in my honest opinion.” They turned it into content and posted a poll (which is silly, because democracy alone cannot determine correct usage). The debate soon metastasized across the English-speaking internet.

At press time, their poll showed “honest” in the lead with about 11,000 more votes. Here at The Atlantic, my esteemed colleague Alexis Madrigal has already weighed in on the debate: According to dozens of guidebooks dating back to the early days of the internet, imho stands for “in my humble opinion.” What’s more, there are many books that list humble alone, and many that list humble and honest. But there are none that list only honest.

Etymologically speaking, Alexis is correct. The h in imho clearly did originate from humble.

But he’s wrong about what imho means today. (Sorry, Alexis—I’m just being honest.) Think about it: Honest and humble have two wildly different meanings. They’re not even talking about the same quality. Honest conveys something about the truth value of the statement that follows. Humble communicates its tone and emotional charge. If imho could legitimately mean either humble or honest—and half of us have been using it one way, and the other half the other—then we live in semantic anarchy. We were all typing, clickety-clacking with our fingers, but we weren’t communicating anything. If imho can mean humble or honest, then the internet is full of noise and empty of soul: little more than a broadband Tower of Babel.

But of course this isn’t the case. We all know what imho means. It is a set of letters that can introduce friendly advice, a stern caesura, or a joke. In other words, imho is a word. It joins the many other initialisms that have been ratified into ordinary words: snafu, radar, laser, zip code. Specifically, imho is a discourse marker—a word or phrase like however, well, or anyway that acts as glue in a piece of writing. Imho specifies that a certain phrase is a statement of belief.

And it’s a pretty good word imho. It’s a lot cuter than the other discourse markers. But then again, what do I know? I’m not a linguist or anything fwiw.