We do some funny things in the English language. A friend and former colleague commented on it last month in his blog, www.wessays.blogspot.com. It’s entry 527. I would have called it to your attention earlier, but I’ve been away and it took me a while to catch up.
Wes says the word misspeak actually means lie and it is but one example of watering down the English language. I think Wes made a small omission because misspeak also means mistake, but both mistake and lie are stronger words than misspeak, so Wes is correct with respect to the principle of the thing. Reading Wes’s blog regularly is anything but a mistake; I recommend it.
We do water down the language; we also distill it. The word hero is overused and the way it is used takes a strong word and uses it as if it were weaker. People are lauded as heroes when they didn’t even do something brave, just considerate. When I was a fine young physical specimen (if you blinked you missed it) if I jumped into warm water to rescue someone who appeared to be drowning, I would have been nice, not heroic. I’m a good swimmer and I learned how to rescue people without drowning myself.
If I did the same thing in icy water, I would have cramped into a ball, sunk to the bottom and drowned. That wouldn’t have been heroic either, even though it would have been done at risk of my life; it would have been stupid. Incidentally, I never became a lifeguard because the one time I took the lifeguard test, the water was extremely cold and the testers pulled me out after I cramped up but before I sank.
To be heroic, I think the hero has to exhibit bravery and risk life and limb. Today, most headline writers have a much lower standard.