Holding out for a hero

What does it mean to be a hero?

The word apparently originated with the ancient Greeks, referring to demigods and other more-than-human characters in their mythology. The more recent (and marvelously circular) definition is someone who is admired for their heroic qualities (particularly courage or nobility) and/or great achievements.*

While this captures the strict definition of the word, I think it’s missing some nuance. I don’t fault dictionaries for this, they tend to be a little behind the dynamic frontier of language-as-she-is-spake, and it may vary slightly in different cultures. As far as I can see, people could intend one of two concepts (or possibly both) when they describe someone as a hero:

  • A protector, rescuer, or provider. Someone who came through when you needed them.
  • An idol, role model, or good example. Someone that you want to be

Both fit into the standard definition (someone admired for their qualities or achievements), but engender different feelings: gratitude or aspiration. This distinction may help explain why some are affected more by the halo effect than others; with a hero you are grateful to but don’t want to be, you already have a sense of their less-desirable traits (or at least that they are different from you).

The other issue may be the modern tendency to polarity of opinions. Thus a public figure (take your favourite sportsperson for example) cannot be merely “okay”; they are either considered the greatest thing since dimpled golf balls or the most overrated player in history.

I guess it’s another example of the phenomena of people not having sensible opinions because that requires thought (read: effort). Hmmm. Maybe I should write a post on that sometime…


* The definition of “hero” also refers to the protagonist of a story, or a particular type of (especially swashbuckling) sandwich. I think we can accept that these are not relevant to the current discussion.

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