I have been working lately on something that’s taking up a good deal of my time. Whether it will bear fruit or not, I don’t know, but I am left with little time to post, and less time to think. So I am going to mount a hobby horse that I have been riding for several years, about the debasement of the word “hero”. What set me off was this article (Our latest hero) from this morning’s Boston Globe. It seems Boston’s latest hero is a fireman who died when the firetruck in which he was a passenger went out of control because the brakes failed. It was a horrible event, and he died an awful death, but how does the fact that he died an accidental death make him a hero?
Here’s my dictionary’s definition of the word “hero”:
- In mythology and legend, a man, often of divine ancestry, who is endowed with great courage and strength, celebrated for his bold exploits, and favored by the gods.
- A person noted for feats of courage or nobility of purpose, especially one who has risked or sacrificed his or her life:soldiers and nurses who were heroes in an unpopular war.
- A person noted for special achievement in a particular field:the heroes of medicine. See Synonyms at celebrity.
- The principal male character in a novel, poem, or dramatic presentation.
- Chiefly New York City See submarine. See Regional Note at submarine.
I think we can all agree that definition five (which links in the dictionary to a long list of regionalisms for the entity that should here and everywhere go by the name of “grinder”) does not apply. We can exclude 1, 3 and 4 as well. That leaves definition two. It requires, if I read it right, some element of personal choice by the “hero”. That is, he or she must choose or at least knowingly risk death for a selfless end. What choice did this unfortunate fireman have? Why is he any more of a hero than his compatriots who survived the crash? If I were in a car crash, would I be a hero, or do I have to be a cop or a fireman in order to qualify?
This word has become increasingly degraded. The 9/11 victims (except for the passengers in the plane in Pennsylvania) were not heroes. They were victims. This fireman was a victim. Not every soldier that dies or is injured is a hero. Some, after all, take their wounds from behind, either metaphorically or in reality. Some are merely unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yet in our age, they are all heroes.
Of course, words change their meaning over time. Perhaps we need to redefine the word to mean something like: someone who has suffered an injury or death under circumstances that make us want to praise him or her to make ourselves feel good. Before we do that, or at least at the same time, we should come up with another word for those who are truly heroes (like the pilot of this plane), so we can set them apart somehow. They do deserve some recognition. According to my Thesaurus, the only synonym for the sense of the word hero at issue here is “paladin”, which somehow just doesn’t make it.