What’s in a word?
An example of this may be found in the contemporary use of the word, hero, which time and habit have cheapened or at the very least confused, but first, some definitions of hero from the current print edition of the Oxford English Dictionary:
(1) Antiq. A name given (as in Homer) to men of superhuman strength, courage, or ability, favoured by the gods; at a later time regarded as intermediate gods and men, and immortal.
(2) A man distinguished by extraordinary valour and martial achievements; one who does brave or noble deeds; an illustrious warrior.
(3) A man who exhibits extraordinary bravery, firmness, fortitude, or greatness of soul, in any course of action, or in connexion with any pursuit, work, or enterprise; a man admired and venerated for his achievements and noble qualities.
Consider the use of hero to describe an historical event: “[T]he exploration of lands beyond Europe ─ of which [Ferdinand] Magellan’s voyage was to be the culmination ─ opened the entire world, thus introducing the modern age.” [ii]
Now consider this observation: “Heroism is often confused with physical courage. In fact the two are very different. There was nothing heroic about [Ferdinand] Magellan’s death. He went into that last darkness a seasoned campaigner, accompanied by his own men, and he was completely fearless because as he drew his last breath he believed ─ he knew ─ that paradise was imminent. Similarly, the soldier who throws himself on a live grenade, surrendering his life to save his comrades, may be awarded the medal of honor. Nevertheless his deed, being impulsive, is actually unheroic. Such acts, no more reflective than the swift withdrawal of a blistered hand from a red-hot stove, are involuntary. Heroism is the exact opposite ─always deliberate, never mindless.” [my emphasis] [iii]
“The hero acts alone, without encouragement, relying solely on conviction and his own inner resources. Shame does not discourage him; neither does obloquy. Indifferent to approval, reputation, wealth or love, he cherishes only his personal sense of honor, which permits no one else to judge. La Rochefoucauld, not always a cynic, wrote of him that he does “without witnesses that we would be capable of doing before everyone.” Guided by an inner gyroscope, he pursues his vision single-mindedly, undiscouraged by rejections, defeat, or even the prospect of imminent death. Few men can even comprehend such fortitude. Virtually all crave some external incentive: the appreciation of peers, the possibility of exculpation, the promise of retroactive affection, the hope of rewards, applause, decorations ─ of emotional reparations in some form. Because these longings are completely normal, only a man with towering strength of character can suppress them.” [iv]
“The ultimate authority on the English language, the Oxford English Dictionary, is to update the definition of the word ‘hero’ as part of an ongoing effort to reflect the contemporary use of words. The change is inspired by widespread usage of the word to describe anyone who is vaguely helpful, including people who deliver mail in inclement weather, and those who make the evening news for reasons other than committing a crime, according to OED editor-in-chief, Brendan Smythe.” [v]
Smythe’s observation: “Previously when a parent would say ‘you’re my hero’ to a child who picked up their toys, they were alluding to the original definition in a knowingly erroneous fashion to emphasize they appreciated the action. But these days they appear to really mean it – their child is an actual hero to them – and we must take account of that if we are to remain relevant.”
Far from representing an abrupt change in usage, this follows a longstanding trend in the downgrading of the noun.
“In Classical Greece a hero was a person of superhuman strength who inspired the known world, which devolved to meaning an ordinary mortal displaying ‘exceptional bravery and self sacrifice’ in the 20th century, before morphing into our current understanding as ‘someone who does or might do something useful’, as well as a particular type of sandwich.”
The change means there will be no longer be a specific noun to accurately describe people who rush into burning buildings or throw themselves on grenades to prevent or minimize harm to others.
“For now we suggest using compound descriptions, such as ‘exceptionally brave and noteworthy person’, or similar.”
The new definition will be included in the next printed edition, and appear in the online version shortly beforehand. Also being changed is the word ‘miracle’, which now denotes ‘something slightly unexpected that turns out well’, and ‘genius’ which henceforth is defined as ‘someone who is inclined to think from time to time’.
Now, a question: “Does this improve communications, understanding, or contribute value to the power of language? Does it not, instead, reduce the real hero to mundane status; to nothing? Does it not delete a once usefully descriptive term from our lexicon?”
This is not a complaint but rather a question…
[i] Remembered Past; On History, Historians, and Historical Knowledge, by John Lukacs, Chapter I, Page 15, edited by Mark G. Malvasi and Jeffrey O. Nelson, ISI Books, Wilmington, Delaware, © 2005 ISI Books.