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.