Alas, Poor Heroine

By Maeve Maddox

Anyone who has ever taught knows The Look.

It is the eye-rolling look students throw at one another when the behind-the-times teacher uses what she thinks is a perfectly ordinary word, unaware that the word has taken on a new meaning.

I can remember the first time I got The Look. I’d read a poem which contained the word “gay” in the sense of “full of joy or mirth.”

Again, I was rewarded with The Look when explaining to seventh graders that “Madonna” is a term for the Blessed Virgin Mary. That was in the early 80s and I was unaware of the latest singing sensation.

Related to the adolescent Look is the reluctance among speakers of any age to use words that sound like something else. One such word is the feminine form of hero.

Admittedly, there’s a tendency for nouns with feminine endings to be abandoned in the face of modern feminism. Actress, for example, has mostly fallen out of use with members of the acting profession, except as an Academy Award category. Likewise “poetess” and “authoress” are felt to be abominations by women who write.

The word heroine presents a different problem. It is too common in the discussion of literature to be abandoned. In ordinary conversation, and on television, however, people seem to prefer to use the word hero for both male and female persons of prowess.

The word heroine is being driven out of ordinary speech because of its pronunciation. I’ve seen a cousin to The Look on the faces of people who hesitate before calling a woman a “heroine.” Often they opt instead for “female hero” rather than say a word that sounds the same as an evil drug.

Personally, I see nothing wrong with using the word hero as a unisex word.

A word of caution is in order, however, when the writing context calls for the word heroine.

The following appears in a brochure distributed by the Malco theatre chain:

She [Dakota Blue Richards] saw the National Theatre production and announced that she wanted to be Lyra, the high-spirited heroin of The Golden Compass.

TIP: Joan of Arc is a heroine.
Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm is about a heroin addict.

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14 Responses to “Alas, Poor Heroine”

  • Daniel Scocco

    Maeve, good stuff.

    I hear you when you say The Look :). Made me laugh remembering similar moments indeed.

  • Adam

    This was a great piece. Many English speakers see a similar problem of gender nouns in Spanish, what they fail to understand is that in Spanish the male form is the generic. Any use of a male noun in Spanish is not necessarily related to the gender of the subject. However, in English we have a different problem and I think you are right on when you say that using the masculine form as a generic does not subtract from the meaning.

    I had to laugh when I read your example, I am sure that we have another example of reliance on the infamous “spellchecker”. At least…I hope that’s what it is.

  • jan hampton

    what, you’ve never heard of a shero? That was al the rage for a while. My teacher husband she’s a shero is just a sandwich on a napkin.

  • LuAnn

    I remember the first time I said that someone got screwed over. I thought my Dad was going to have a heart attack! LOL! I had some explaining to do as I was only a freshman in high school…..

  • Deborah

    My mother (now gone on ahead of us) wore thongs for about sixty years. Oh she had so much fun in her later years, and absolutely refused to call them flip-flops.

  • C. Llanes

    As a translator, I find it rather humorous when I hear a woman refer to herself as an “actor”. Why? Because it does not translate well in Spanish, French, or any other Romance language, in my opinion. For example, if a woman were to say, “Soy actor,” she is in effect saying, “I am a male actress”–a complete reversal from English. Or, she’s gender confused. Call me old fashioned, but I will stick to “actress”. No need to be PC about it.

  • Guardian Angel

    This is another tremendous idea. When I am making a post to refer a child, I usually use he/she or He or She. But I realized I should use “he” to refer a child unless I am really specifying a little girl.

    I am not doing this due to discriminate female over the male but I think it is more proper. I think many will agree.

  • Charlie Gilkey

    Since I teach philosophy, I get The Look all the time. Actually, there’s two looks: the one you mentioned and the Who Uses That Word! look. The worse thing about the The Look you mentioned is that it makes you wonder whether you used the word the wrong way. So, we stop using the word that way and we look back fifteen years later and wonder what happened to actresses.

    Great post!

  • M Mitchell

    @C. Llanes – do you think it’s funny also when women call themselves doctors instead of doctresses, or aviators instead of aviatrices, or do you recognize that the words “doctor” and “aviator” are now accepted as gender-neutral in English, and translate appropriately? I thought translators interpreted meaning, rather than simply converting individual words out of a Spanish-English dictionary. Otherwise, what is the point in hiring one? A dictionary is cheaper, and Babelfish is free.

    I think the word “heroine” should stay in the English language, just because I’ve seen this spelling error so often and it makes me laugh every time.

  • Rita Day

    I got the look many times along with a gingerly raised hand and a helpful hint on additional meanings to the one that I knew. ‘Poked’ raised shocked eyebrows, ‘gay’ really puzzled them, one term was a pop group to them, which I had heard of but didn’t think they had taken over the phrase ‘dire straits’. My last faux pas before retiring was to raise two fingers in a Churchillian salute of good will and luck; I had my hand the facing the wrong way! But I will never forget the girl who whined,’You use words that we don’t understand!’ My response was,’You learn that way; it’s my job to teach you a wider vocabulary’.

  • Benjamin Baxter

    Actually, heroin is pretty expensive. But no worries — I know a guy.

  • wyn

    I was on a kick reading every last L.M. Montgomery story I could get my hands on. We were asked to write a short composition in grade seven and I wrote as if I were inspired by the seaside stories in late Victorian times – in retrospect, the timeline of my composition was not really that clear – and used the word “gay” to describe happy feelings. I was tenderly hurt when the teacher cross it out for “happy”!

  • Alice

    I remember being disturbed upon learning the alternate meaning to “gay”. I was around six and a few of my favorite books involved heroines singing gaily.

    I kind of gave them The Look for a while.

    How is “actress” discriminatory to females? By that logic, “actor” is discriminatory to males!

  • Jade

    I think it’s ridiculous how worked up some women get about female versions of terms. *rolls eyes*

    I lol’d at the “Look” too 😛

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