Know Your Words

What Is a Hero?

The_heroine_of_MatagordaA few months ago, I got fed up with my respectably empty office job and submitted my resignation.  I can’t tell you I regret it — the job was simply awful — but given that I’m writing this on a weekday morning at 9:30 am, it’s clear that I didn’t think it through.*

Anyway, when I began to sheepishly spread the word about this rash decision, my brother was one of several people to respond to the news by saying, “You’re my hero!”  This wasn’t the reception I was expecting, largely because I didn’t feel very heroic. In fact, I initially tried to keep this nugget of news under wraps, as I figured folks would be all “judgey” and say things like, “We’ll, that was stupid!” and the ever popular “Are you fucking nuts?” (Granted, I have since learned that some of the folks who know about this have said stuff like this, just not to my face.)

Be that as it may, the use of the word hero in this context prompted me to wonder about the word’s meaning and how its use has changed over the centuries. To learn more, I dug into the references. Here’s what I found:

Definitions (Poetic and otherwise):

A hero, says the Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, is defined as:

1. (In mythology and legend) A man of great strength  and courage, favored by the gods  and, in part, descended from them, often regarded as a half-god and worshiped after his death.

2. Any man admired for his courage, nobility, or exploits, especially in war.

3. Any person admired for his qualities or achievements and regarded as an ideal or model.

4. The central male character in a novel, play, or poem, etc., with whom the reader or audience is supposed to sympathize; protagonist; often opposed to villain.

5. The central figure in any important event or period, honored for his outstanding qualities.

The Oxford English Dictionary offers a similar definition, but one of its entries stands out due to its rather poetic description:

A man who exhibits extraordinary bravery, firmness, fortitude, or greatness of soul, in any course of action, or in connection with any pursuit, work, or enterprise; a man admired and venerated for his achievements and noble qualities.

I’ll admit it, I love that phrase “greatness of soul.”

Beyond the definition of hero, the texts of the Smith Dictionary Collection of Laurel are generally in agreement about the word’s origins. Hero comes from the Greek work heros, which in ancient times, applied to men of superhuman ability or courage and to demigods. Initially, the English term hero was used to refer to this Greek concept. It wasn’t until the 16th century, says the (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins, that use of the term was expanded to mean a “brave or otherwise admirable man.” As for the literary application of the word, that didn’t happen until the next century.

And what about the word heroine, the term for a female hero? According to the Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, this term made its way into English sometime before the 17th century and traces its origin to Greek (via French and Latin) heroine, the feminine form of heros.

Fairy Tales vs. Folklore:

Interestingly, the Dictionary of World Folklore (DWF) ignores gender in its entry for hero, noting that, this special person “is usually portrayed as a human living in conditions similar to those hearing the tale. He or she is not bound to actual time or place.” [Emphasis mine.]

It seems, however, that this timelessness only applies to fairy tales, which place the hero in a situation “[dissociated] from the known [wherein he or she is forced to] overcome difficulty to reach a position of secure, socially acceptable success.” To accomplish this, the hero “attaches to him or herself a sense of the potentialities of life, a positive vision of change and human success in a fundamentally benevolent universe. The hero may be virtuous, clever, lazy, or foolish, but in the end he or she secures the prize.”

In folk tales, on the other hand, the attainment of that “socially acceptable success” doesn’t seem to be an issue. These heroes, which tend to me male warrior types, are more apt to reflect the “ideals and preoccupations” of the folk who gave birth to the tales.” For example, the “American folk hero Davey Crockett,” who “embodies the virtues of the hard-working pioneer: brash, powerful, coarse-mannered, and humorous.”

The_heroes;_or,_Greek_fairy_tales_for_my_children_(1908)_(14766975824)Heroes and Drugs:

The name of the drug heroin also comes from the Greek word heros and is thought to allude to the the substance’s “aggrandizing effects” on the brain of the user. – Oxford Dictionary of Psychology

Heroes and Hero Worship:

More psychology, this time from the Psychiatric Dictionary: From the psychoanalytic point of view, hero worship is defined (or maybe explained) as “a product of the need of the great majority of people for authority which they can admire, to which they can submit, and which dominates and sometimes even ill-treats them.” The need for such an  authority is simply the longing of each person for the ideal or perfect father.