I love words. More specifically, I love their meaning, their etymology. But modernly, our culture tends to debase, dilute and devalue words.
Take the word, “hero.” It used to mean someone distinguished by exceptional courage, nobility and achievement.
Social historian, lawyer and cultural critic Daniel Boorstin said of heroes that they created themselves. Unlike celebrities who are created by “our exaggerated expectations of human greatness,” Boorstin said heroes were instead “distinguished by achievement” and were the stuff of “folklore, sacred texts, and history books.”
The word, ‘hero,’ was reserved for ordinary people doing extraordinary things, such as the selfless, courageous passerby, Adam Lusker, a man who pulls an infant from a burning home.
Or it was a designation circumspectly stored up for soldiers like WW II Medal of Honor recipient Audie L. Murphy who climbed onto a burning tank destroyer in danger of blowing up, and though wounded, fought off waves of attacking German soldiers from 3 sides with a .50 caliber machine gun to provide protective covering fire for his fellow soldiers.
Not for just showing up.
Heroes were individuals worthy of note because they were rare, so uncommon. They weren’t the everyday commonplace.
The word was saved for the truly selfless, the exceptionally self-sacrificing not, for example, for actors called heroes because they donate their shoes to charity, Scarlett Johansson is a Hero in Heels, or for good people who do volunteer work or those who unwillingly suffer misfortune and survive/don’t survive terrible illnesses or have jobs they’re paid to do anyway.
It was also supposed to be more than just being someone’s muse or inspiration. But anymore, we’re all heroes just for hanging around and drawing a breath. And unlike Bonnie Tyler, no one is Holding Out For A Hero.
And unlike what Woody Allen supposedly said about living, that “showing up was 80 percent of life,” heroes weren’t also supposed to be defined that way. Heroes were more than that.
But today, among some vocations, a hero is one simply because he shows up. The word is bandied about like so much surplusage. And consequently, it’s become so commonplace that like the moral of The Incredibles (2004), “if everyone is special, then no one else is.“
Humorist Joe Queenan rightly decries the misuse of another much devalued word, ‘icon.’ He blames hyperventilating journalists. Musicians, celebrities and athletes are called icons. And even the neighborhood McDonald’s has become iconic.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal last summer, Icons Aren’t What They Used to Be, Queenan opined, “But for the longest time the word “icon” was used to refer to what Webster’s describes as “an object of uncritical devotion.” No more. Today it is used to describe anyone reasonably famous who is completely over the hill, on a respirator, or stone dead.”
Misunderstood usage devalues a word’s currency.
The very currency of words, literally and figuratively, cheapens them. It’s an airhead’s overuse of the word ‘amazing’ to describe everything from a movie to a milkshake to a barely liked ‘BFF’ so that the “Amazing” No Longer Amazes. ‘Amazing’ once meant “great wonder” or “surprise” but not anymore.
The meaning of redemption.
These etymological ruminations came to mind not to riff again against the ceaseless tide but because of Jon Shields’ tribute to former NBA basketball player Manute Bol, Manute Bol’s Radical Christianity, in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal. Bol died June 19th.
Like Joe Queenan, Shields, an assistant professor at California’s Claremont McKenna College, also chides journalists, albeit of the sports variety, for diluting a word’s proper meaning. The word is ‘redemption,’ which Shields writes “can be found in more than 2,600 stories on ESPN.com.”
But to his way of thinking, the sportswriters’ use of ‘redemption’ has not been a good development. Sports journalists have strained and strayed from “an older, Christian conception of redemption that has been badly obscured by its current usage.” With the passing of Bol, Professor Shields takes the opportunity to not only pay homage to Bol as a humanitarian who gave away in charitable good works, the millions he earned in the NBA but more importantly, whose “radical Christianity” restores the authenticity of ‘redemption.’
Bol, a Sudanese, never forgot who he was and where he came from. After retiring from the game, he devoted his life and fortune to helping those less fortunate in his native country. He saved lives and helped educate his country’s children. Just before he died, one writer even said he lived the life of a saint, Manute Bol deserves more recognition for his work in Sudan.
Bol’s life was defined by his Christian beliefs, including “the Christian understanding of redemption,” which “has always involved lowering and humbling oneself.” It’s a definition far removed from an athlete pointing heavenward to praise God for a blessed touchdown or a sports journalist’s mislabeled redemption found supposedly in an athlete’s revenge for a past sports loss to a rival.
Shields’ column is worth reading not because Bol was heroic or iconic. No, Shield’s essay is worth reading for the testament of Manute Bol’s life and for the redemptive power of a word properly used and forcefully understood.