Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Brave and Courageous: Wordy Wednesday

I have been pondering the idea of bravery and courage lately.

So, of course I looked them up in the online etymology dictionary. (Sidenote --I really need to buy some version of the Oxford English Dictionary)

Anyway, the etymology of  courage was not particularly shocking or enlightening.

Courage - in c.1300 from the French corage . . and also from other times the Latin coraticum, the Italian coraggio and the Spanish coraje.  All had to do with the "heart" (as in feelings, not the organ).  In Middle English it had the denotation of "what is in one's mind or thoughts" - and was broadly used for any sort of idea - not just our "bravery courage"

Brave(ry) on the other hand - that was interesting!

Here is the excerpt from the only Etymology Dictionary on brave: (emphasis mine)

late 15c., from M.Fr., "splendid, valiant," from It. bravo "brave, bold," originally "wild, savage," possibly from M.L. bravus "cutthroat, villain," from L. pravus "crooked, depraved;" a less likely etymology being from L. barbarus (see barbarous). A Celtic origin (Ir. breagh, Cornish bray) also has been suggested. The noun application to N. American Indian warriors is from c.1600. O.E. words for this, some with overtones of "rashness," included modig (now "moody"), beald ("bold"), cene ("keen"), dyrstig ("daring"). The verb "to face with bravery" is from 1776, from Fr. braver. Brave new world is from the title of Aldous Huxley's 1932 satirical utopian novel; he lifted the phrase from Shakespeare ("Tempest" v.i.183).

in the 1540s bravery meant "daring, defiance, boasting"

Brave(ry) has such a dark and cynical connotation in the global history. I had never before realized that to call a Native American a "brave" was an English term that said more about the colonist fear than the actual character of the first peoples of America.

Ok - so that's the history  - but neither of those etymologies really resonates with me as far as my understanding of the contemporary denotations and connotations - so let's just look at the dictionary -

Brave (adj)
possessing or exhibiting courage or courageous endurance.

Courage (n)
the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear; bravery.

And, also from

"Brave is the most comprehensive: it is especially used of that confident fortitude or daring that actively faces and endures anything threatening. Courageous implies a higher or nobler kind of bravery, esp. as resulting from an inborn quality of mind or spirit that faces or endures perils or difficulties without fear and even with enthusiasm."

These words have been on my mind a lot thanks to my recent trip back to Georgia for the holidays. I'd pay for something with a card, the cashier would ask to see ID, she'd notice that it was a different state and ask where I lived. When I replied, "Chicago" - I'd get a wide eyed stare of admiration and they'd share some story about a friend who lived in a big city or how they always thought about living in a big city or what not.

It reminded me of how when I moved I heard a lot of "you're so brave!"  and it confused me. I've talked to other people who had no issue uprooting their life and moving across the country from everything they knew - and they got the "you're so brave!" from their friends as well. So, it's not me that brings on these lauds - it's the fact that some action is happening. An action that many people find scary.

But does the fact that other people find it scary make ME brave? I did not face a threatening situation in moving. There was no one endangering my life or person. And while I did move to "the big city" with enthusiasm - there were no perils or difficulties (unless you count a 13 hour car drive as perilous)

I saw an opportunity and I took it. I made a decision. It's not bravery. Decisiveness? Impulsiveness? Adventurous? Maybe. 

So I don't feel brave for simply finding a new address and employer and it really makes me uncomfortable when people assign such a noble word for such a matter-of-fact circumstance.But, I obviously really value words and their meanings - so maybe no one else thinks it is such a big deal :)


  1. Do you use a Mac or a PC? The Macs come with a New Oxford American Dictionary built in (you can find it in the applications folder).

    I got a lot of "you're so brave, I could never do that"s when I moved to Japan. But we had a job lined up, a place to live (that was fully furnished) picked out for us, and after quite a bit of prayer we felt this was God's will for us. Was it so "brave" then to go? I'm not sure.

    The only thing that was difficult was having to sort through so many possessions and get rid of most of it. It was tough, but I don't regret it a bit. In fact, it's made it easier to get rid of stuff now (I'm less attached to "things," which is a healthy change for me).

  2. Perhaps you're underestimating the dangers and difficulty.

    It's a fact that cities typically are more dangerous than suburban or rural areas, even if you haven't felt personally in danger. There are also cultural differences, and though they may not be dangerous in a traditional sense, they could create many problems. And it's pretty well accepted, at the least, that large life changes are difficult, even for those who find change fun or exciting. And even if things run smoothly for you. (Consider the steps involved and the prep work involved - I think the amount alone would lean it toward the "difficult" category, and you had steps that a lot of moves wouldn't have, like not being able to take furniture or pets.)

    So, I would think facing these things with what appears to be enthusiasm and fearlessness, is indeed brave. At the least, it's courageous, as you possess the quality of mind to face changes with ease.

    Would it differ if someone who was scared to death of this same situation when on to do it anyway? Would that make them brave or courageous? Is there a difference between a person who pushes through fear and one who finds the same thing something easy? Is it the internal (how you feel) or the external (what you're facing) that creates the difference? Is one brave and one courageous? Or is the second one neither?

  3. April - ooh..had no idea Macs came with OED. I use PC. Might have to look into that when it's time to buy a new computer.

    I was the same way with Chicago..I had a job, a place to live, etc.

    Lauren -

    I just re-read my entry and realized that I never went into the "courage" word with my move...but as you said - it did involve some sort of difficulty without maybe courage can be applied..though that still feels odd to me.

    I def. think someone who pushes through fear gets the brave distinction...and, yeah, I think according to the definition someone who doesn't sense the fear (or doesn't give weight to the reasons for fear) to begin with in a dangerous situation might be courageous.

  4. It's very interesting that bravery had such a cynical connotation, and that it once meant "daring, defiance, boasting". I feel that in many ways, "brave" is still used in this more negative sense, but in a somewhat passive-aggressive way.

    I got it a lot, for instance, in regards to giving birth at home. "Oh, you're so brave! I could never do that. I would be too scared that something would go wrong and I wouldn't have all the life-saving advantages of giving birth in a hospital."

    In other words? "You're endangering your child's life and I think it's a very rash and daring thing to do."

    I often hear the same sort of thing in regards to not using pain medication during childbirth. "Oh, how brave. I'll take the epidural and avoid the pain, thanks. I have nothing to prove!" In that sense, "brave" is really said with more of the "defiant and boastful" connotation than a "courageous endurance" one.

    I tend to understand courage as being more of a noble venture, while bravery refers to facing one's own fears but without the same noble quality or pursuit that courage suggests.

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  6. HH- I hadn't even thought of the passive/aggressive "you're so brave!" comments and how they fit the etymology. So interesting!

    an I think you're last paragraph of the note sums it up pretty well!