English fails me

So one of the great things about English is that it has so many words.  But sometimes you find subjects for which the appropriate words don’t exist.  There’s a passage in my favorite Sandman story, Brief Lives, riffing on that idea as a joke.

Anyway, the word bugging me today is ‘hero’.  It is a perfectly good word, but it lacks sufficient specificity.

While not an official dictionary definition I am using it in the following senses:

  1. a person who inspires others
  2. a person held in higher esteem than others (though not solely due to rank or title)

I think this covers the normal uses of the term.  Note I am excluding the others meanings of the main character in a story and the more specific definition of a classical hero (and also the sandwich).

A wide variety of heroes can fit into this definition.  Let’s look at some examples (not complete):

  • People who place themselves at risk due to their profession (the military, firemen, policemen)
  • People who place themselves in specific situations of physical jeopardy to safeguard others
  • People who are injured or killed while safeguarding others
  • People who experience hardship while upholding a moral or religious ideal
  • People who overcome physical, mental, spiritual or other hardships
  • People who succumb to the same hardships, but rise above them even then
  • People who are paragons in their field (science, sport, religion, etc)
  • People who act as role models for children (i.e. the answer to the grade school essay, “Who is my here?”  Dad, Mom, my teacher, my coach, my priest, etc.)

So my problem here isn’t that hero can’t be used to fit all these categories, but that we don’t have words that narrow the concept to some of the more explicit categories.  And it is a pretty broad range.

Instead, we often hear the phrase turnings of ‘a true hero’ or ‘a real hero’ which elevates the type of hero being described while lowering other types.  I think that is unfortunate.  What is really needed is a word that better distinguishes between the various types so that specific praise or reference can be given without diminishing the others.

See it is like type overloading, but without a clear idea of how to cast between them.  (Um – using type casting and type overloading in their programming referents for anyone who I lost there.)

In those situations where a more specific word can be used – martyr, saint, paragon, exemplar – I think it is good to do so.  However, those only help in some cases.

I wonder if there are more specific terms in other languages?  Could we borrow them?

Until then, maybe I’ll just be happy with the great words that we do have.  Like serendipitous and flip-flop.  Ooh, and malapropism – words about words. 🙂

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