You’d think at my age; common words wouldn’t confuse or irritate me. Nonetheless, they can. “Hero” is one of those words. For my entire life, the word “hero” meant “someone who had risked life and limb to save others from harm or death” – something I think old movies of the ’40s and ’50s must have taught me. When I heard some random celebrity called a “hero,” my longstanding exasperation with the apparent misuse of the word would kick in.
The latest bout of aggravation came when John Glenn was called a “hero” because he went into space on top of a rocket spewing fire and brimstone. A writer had expressed the opinion that he had been incredibly brave to climb into that capsule and be launched into the great unknown. Well, that was the final straw. Would John himself have considered it brave? Sure, he probably had a bit of anxiety before the launch. Perhaps even a bit of excitement or fear, such as felt as a test pilot in far more risky flights early on in his career. Would he have considered himself a hero? He surely considered it an honor and a great opportunity.
After my vexation settled down a bit, the thought came to me that I just might have something wrong with my definition of what a hero was. After all, how could so many educated people be using the word improperly? Well, it can happen. But in this case, I had to consider that maybe I needed to take a closer look at the word.
I have five dictionaries on my bookshelf, gathering dust. In years past, anytime a word came into question, and I usually looked in several volumes until I had a very good grasp of various definitions. I will admit to getting lazy in my old age. So I tapped on my keyboard instead, and voilà! According to Merriam-Webster online, my assumed “pet” definition was not even mentioned. The closest was the final definition, which was “one who shows great courage”. No mention of risking life and limb. Now I was really irritated, but only with myself. Embarrassed too.
The definition that applied to John Glenn was “a man admired for his achievements and noble qualities.” Now that I could get behind. Yes, John Glenn, as a veteran of Korea, an astronaut, and a senator, certainly could be classified a hero. The second part of that meaning, “noble qualities,” is exemplified (in my opinion) in his lifelong devotion to his wife, Annie, of 73 years. Now that’s a genuine hero. Please pardon my ignorance.