What is a hero? What are the qualities that make a hero, a hero? Lengthy debates. I challenged the classes over the fatuous statement echoing in the classroom, ‘We’re all heroes’. Really? Why the word ‘heroism’ if it’s that common, if we are all heroes? Today it seems as if the word is being drained of substance, is becoming bleached and bland, a flabby, empty word through overuse.
In order to go beyond the banal, we explored the words ordinary and extraordinary and then actions that go beyond the mundane. Eventually our thoughts shifted from the realm of anyone helping, inevitably the hapless elderly, across a road or standing to give the elderly (again) a seat on a train or a bus. Do acts of heroism only involve the elderly? In the scenarios painted by my classes, the elderly figured prominently as recipients of heroic action, as well as unfortunate cats apparently stuck in trees!
Below Jack Smith captures the actions of the everyday, the ordinary, at least ordinary in London 1953. Smith was one of a small group of British painters known as kitchen sink painters so called because they painted the ordinary, everything, including the kitchen sink.
‘Ordinary’ as an adjective is of Latin roots from ordo, ordinus arriving in English in the 15th century via France. Did you know that as a noun, its use was common up until the 19th century? Rowlandson’s image of the chaotic ordinary, the initial painting in this post, shows it to be synonymous with tavern. The only surviving use of ordinary as a noun today is in the expression ‘out of the ordinary’. We saw the related word order as a noun was older, attested in English from the 13th century .We discovered from the Online Etymology Dictionary that its root, Latin ordinem, accusative of ordo ‘order’ had a sense of ‘rank, a series or an arrangement’ which originally referred to the threads lined up in a loom! So from ordo we have ordain, order, subordinate, ordination,primordial.With the discovery of primordial and ordain ,we hypothesized that the morphemes: <ord+in(e)+ary>.
There was even more to discover. In 1200 the verb order meant ‘to give order to, to arrange’ and it was only in the 1540’s that it took on the sense to command, give orders to. The noun orderly 1781 meant someone who carries orders, broadening later to hospital attendant, so someone assigned to keep things in order. We discovered too the clipped form ordnance from ordinance referred to military equipment, artillery then to the branch of the army concerned with stores of materials. The ordnance survey of Britain was conducted in 1833 under the direction of the Master of Ordnance.
We wondered about primordial– a compound surely, therefore two base elements. So why no <e> in the final position of the first base <prime>? <prim(e)+ord++i+al>? Perhaps we wondered because it was already primordialis in Latin, already a compound with no final <e> in its base.
Further surprises were the order of the day when we discovered the Latin past participle ornare from ordo had led to words such as ornate, ornament, adorn meaning to ornament, to fit out with. Suborn, anew word for both the students and me, meaning to bribe to bring about a wicked purpose, to lure someone to commit a crime. In constructing the word sum for ornament we wondered if <a> was a connecting vowel letter in the word: <orn+a+ment> and thought of predicament, testament, ligament and fundamental as support for the connecting vowel letter<a> hypothesis. Ornament as a noun is attested from the 13th century, but in the verbal sense not until 1720.
Some of our thinking captured here on the matrices built on Neil Ramsden’s Mini Matrix Maker:
Helpfulness and assistance is certainly an element of heroism, but the deeds of heroes go beyond the everyday- they are extraordinary. In order to extend the thinking in the classes, my EAL teaching partner and I had students place the choices made by characters, real and fictional, on a spectrum from ordinary to extraordinary. There was no right or wrong placement but we had an expectation that students would offer convincing support for a claim. We hoped students would reconsider the concept of heroism as they placed the following on the spectrum:
- Odysseus ‘s choice to proceed past the monstrous Scylla.
- Telemachus’s choice to go in search of his father.
- The rescue of a cat from a tree.
- The nine African American students known as The Little Rock Nine who chose to attend the previously all white Little Rock High school, Arkansas in 1957. Watch below.
- The young man who attempted to stop the artillery tanks of China’s People’s Liberation Army in the aftermath of the violent gunning down of protesters in Tianamen Square on June 4, 1989.His fate remains unknown but he remains a symbol of peaceful resistance as he stands defiantly before tanks clutching a shopping bag. Watch the extraordinary footage below.
Considering the choices by all these characters, has certainly helped sharpen the discussion as to what constitutes heroism.
Watch a clip from the documentary Eyes on the Prize concerning the Little Rock Nine.
Watch more about the Tianamen Square tankman here and at about 6.50 watch the actions of the ‘tankman’:
Occasionally we witness the extraordinary as seen in the non-fiction excerpts above. Nicholas Clairmont at Big Think reflects on heroism:“Heroism matters because symbolism matters. Let’s stop the hyperbole so that we can truly honor a great and rare human trait when we do see it. Let’s strive to bring ourselves up to heroic levels, not to bring the definition of “hero” down to us.” Read the full article here at Big Think’s, The Proverbial Skeptic blog : You are Not a Hero and follow the links to some real heroes.
While I love the evolution and meaning shifts of words, I worry too about overuse which drains the life and history leaving only brittle word husks. Overuse inevitably walks hand in hand with sloppy sentimentality and flaccid thinking. The Dimwit’s Dictionary by Robert Hartwell Fiske, urges us to write with clarity, to ‘keep the language free from the pollution of empty jargon, idiotic euphemism, self-serving imprecision, comic redundancy, nonsense generally’,(from the foreword by Epstein). Definite, perhaps prescriptivist but provocative and entertaining. Read Fiske’s comments here on hero: