Q: Am I wrong to be irritated at the overuse of the term “hero”? I think of a hero as someone who does something heroic – say, running into a burning building to rescue a child. Instead, I’ve seen newspapers call Super Bowl champions “heroes.” If we cheapen the term, what do we use for true heroism?
A: We think you’re right. In fact, here’s what Pat says on the subject in her grammar and usage book Woe Is I:
“hero. There was a time when this word was reserved for people who were … well … heroic. People who performed great acts of physical, moral, or spiritual courage, often risking their lives or livelihoods. But lately, hero has lost its luster. It’s applied indiscriminately to professional athletes, lottery winners, and kids who clean up at spelling bees. There’s no other word quite like hero, so let’s not bestow it too freely. It would be a pity to lose it. Sergeant York was a hero.”
[Note: This passage was updated to reflect the entry in the 4th edition of Woe Is I, published in 2019.]
So here we’re on your side, though we suspect it’s the losing side.
We might add, however, that the word “hero” has long been used to describe heroic acts that aren’t quite as dramatic as running into a burning building to rescue a child. Blowing the whistle on wrongdoing, or standing up for what you believe in, can also be heroic.
In Homer’s day, the Greek word heros referred to a man “of superhuman strength, courage, ability favoured by the gods,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The word had that sense when it entered English in the 14th century, but by the 16th century it came to mean an illustrious warrior, one who does brave or noble martial deeds.
In the mid-17th century, however, the term was already being used more loosely to describe not only a brave warrior but a man who exhibits firmness, fortitude, or greatness of soul “in any course of action, or in connexion with any pursuit, work, or enterprise,” according to the OED.
A 1661 citation, for example, refers to Galileo and other astronomers as “illustrious Heroes.”
More recently, of course, the usage has become even looser. A 1955 citation refers to “an Italian hero sandwich,” which the OED describes as “U.S. slang, a very large sandwich.” Some might consider eating one a heroic act.