Hair shirt

A hair shirt is as it sounds: a shirt made out of hair. Though they are rarely used today, historically people in some Christian religious orders wore them as a means of penance. The shirts were originally woven with goat hair and were worn next to the skin to keep the wearer in constant discomfort and awareness of the shirt’s presence. (The shirts evolved to contain bits of metal woven with hair. Delightful.)

Today, this item of self-torture survives in the language as a noun that means “one that irritates like a hair shirt” and as an adjective that means “austere and self-sacrificing.”

Here are some examples of hair shirt as a noun:

Uncle Harvey is such a hair shirt. I would rather drink soup from a toilet than listen to another of his “olden days” stories.

Merv thought yoga was a hair shirt until he tried it and enjoyed how limber he felt afterward.

Here are some examples of hair shirt as an adjective:

Carla felt so guilty about murdering her gardener that she chose to live a hair-shirt existence. She gave her belongings to charity and moved to the desert, where she survived by eating spiders and rats.

Getting healthy doesn’t mean living a hair-shirt lifestyle. Merv found vegetables to be delicious, and he got lots of dates from yoga class.

Posted in grammar, vocabulary | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Courage vs. bravery

Last time we talked about the word hero—what it means and what it takes to be one. In this post, we’re discussing two words that are often connected to heroism: courage and bravery.

Today the words are used interchangeably, but a look to their history reveals an important difference.

First let’s look at current definitions.

Bravery is the “quality or state of being brave,” and Merriam-Webster, in its unabridged online version, defines brave as “resolute in facing odds; able to meet danger or endure pain or hardship without giving in to fear.” The unabridged dictionary defines courage as “mental or moral strength enabling one to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty firmly and resolutely.”

It’s worth noting that here Merriam-Webster also defines brave as “having or showing courage.”

Etymology
The current definitions are very similar. Yet, when we look at how courage and bravery came into the English language, a distinction shows.

Merriam-Webster notes that courage is linked historically to cœur, the French word for heart. Brave, on the other hand, comes from the Italian word bravo, meaning “brave, bold.” Bravo, interestingly enough, originally meant “wild, savage,” says the Online Etymology Dictionary.

Meaning
There is a quote that goes “The line between bravery and stupidity is so thin that you don’t know you’ve crossed it until you’re dead.”

That’s the main takeaway when you consider the etymology. Bravery can be the split-second decision to run into a field filled with flying arrows. Bravery can be dangerously close to stupidity, to wild and savage.

Courage, however, takes something deeper. It takes heart. Courage is donating a kidney to your sister because you love her so deeply. Courage is a doctor or a nurse choosing to work in an Ebola-stricken region because they want to relieve human suffering.

Bravery is eating an earthworm sandwich because your buddy dared you.

What do you think?
Is there a difference between courage and bravery? Or should we use them interchangeably? Let me know in the comments.

Posted in etymology | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

What does “hero” mean?

Hero definition
hero: 1) a person who is greatly admired for great or brave acts or fine qualities; 2) a person who is greatly admired
—Merriam-Webster

Hero etymology
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, hero arrived in English in the late fourteenth century. It came from the Greek word heros, which meant demi-god. When it entered English, it meant a man of superhuman strength or physical courage.

Who is a hero? What does it take to be a hero?
Here in the United States, it feels like we are on hero overload. It seems that every soldier coming back from serving in the war on terror is deemed a hero. But what if they had a desk job and never saw combat? What if their “great or brave acts” were scrubbing down naval ships? Does that make them a hero? Should they be greatly admired?

We recently witnessed an act on the other side of the war on terror with the attack in Paris on the staff of the Charlie Hebdo magazine. In western media, the attackers were portrayed as villains, as anti-heroes. But, do the people who believe in their cause not view them oppositely, as heroes?

Is heroism subjective?
In a 2014 article for The Huffington Post, author Rob Cipriano describes the qualities of a hero as these:

A hero is someone who “we” determine to have demonstrated behaviors and  decisions that are ethically and emotionally worthy of our awe. We see in them something we think is not in us. Given similar conditions, we “think” we might not make the same moves and decisions they do, so we place them in an elevated place in society or in our minds. What is a hero? Someone who inspires us by their example. Someone who moves us emotionally to connect with them at some level in order for us develop a connection with them. We may want to idolize them or place them in high personal regard. We may   want to connect with them in a personal way by focusing on them to garner  their strength or will-power.

Then, it seems, everyone can have their own definition of hero based on the qualities they deem to be worthy of admiration.

So, what is it?
We can read all the definitions and descriptions we want, but I don’t think it gets us any closer to a universal template of hero. It seems to me that a hero is whichever person you want it to be. But, I think we should all think hard about what qualities we want to attach to our own definition.

What do you think? What qualities do you think it takes to become a hero? Who are your heroes? Leave me a comment. I’d love to know.

Posted in etymology | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Update

Boy, am I glad it’s a new year. You may have noticed I didn’t do much posting in 2014. It was a rollercoaster year for me. I dealt with health problems and a death in the family and needed to focus on managing my day-to-day life.

But I’m feeling better. And I want to give you more grammar goodness. Look for more frequent postings in 2015.

I’m wishing you all a happy 2015, too. Thanks for sticking with me.

—Erin

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Gray vs. grey

Gray and grey are both correct spellings for that almost-black color, but choosing which to use depends on where you live.

If you are in the United States, gray is more common. If you are in another English-speaking country, grey is preferred.

You can remember this by noting the A and the E in the words:

In America, use grAy.
In England, use grEy.

(But, of course, don’t forget Scotland, Ireland, Australia, and Canada. They use grey too.)

Posted in back to basics, grammar | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments