Hero

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This page concerns the common noun hero. For Hero as a name or proper noun see Hero - hero.

A hero may be

  • a person who has shown exceptional courage, bravery, endurance, or the like.
  • a person who is greatly admired for personal qualities which have enabled them to make a contribution in any field. For example, Sir Alexander Fleming (1881-1955), the discoverer of penicillin, is one of the heroes of medical research, while a footballer who scores the decisive goal for his team might be described as the hero of the match.
  • (in the context of classical mythology) a being of semi-divine status, often a child of mixed human-and-divine parentage, e.g., Achilles, the son of a human father, Peleus, and the goddess Thetis, or Heracles, the son of the god Zeus and a human mother, Alcmene. These semi-divine beings were typically renowned for their remarkable exploits.
  • (in the discussion of literature) the principal male character in a novel, play, etc. Clearly a hero in this sense need not be, and typically is not, a hero in any of the other senses of the word. The expression picaresque hero is applied to the principal character in a novel or play who is a dishonest rogue living a life of disreputable adventure.
    • Rather differently, the eponymous hero of a novel or play is a principal character who gives his name to the novel or play in which he appears: e.g., David Copperfield is the eponymous hero of Charles Dickens’ novel David Copperfield.
  • The feminine of hero is heroine (pronounced, like the drug heroin, IPA: /'hɛ rəʊ ɪn/). Until the final decades of the last century the word hero in all its uses was applied only to males, but in recent years there has been a tendency to use the word also for women who show great courage or display other admirable qualities to a high degree. However, heroine rather than hero is still to be preferred for the principal female character in a novel or play; and the heroes of Greek mythology are a closed set and all of them male.
Etymological note: The English word hero comes from, and is almost a transliteration of, the Greek ἥρως (hērōs), genitive ἥρωος (hērōos). The Greek word could be applied to a being of mixed human-and–divine parentage, like Achilles or Heracles, and to any human who had distinguished himself by his courage or in some other way, but was not used of the principal character in a literary work.
The plural in Greek was ἥρωες 'hero-es', transliterated into Latin as hērōēs - a word with three syllables. (The singular, originally written in French and in Middle English as 'heroë', was also palpably trisyllabic.) Although heroes remains the only accepted spelling of the plural in English, it has been pronounced with only two syllables since at least the seventeenth century. The '-e-' is retained as a silent marker of the plural number.
You may also like to see anti-hero.