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What do you call someone who dies for a good cause or an honourable reason?

An example would be a soldier who dies while saving his country.

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3 Answers 3

A martyr. While the word hero could also be used, it can happen that the hero does an honorable thing and survives, while the word martyr always signifies that the person died.

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Interesting case, these two words, of how far words travel from their origins: in early Greek (where both words originated), a hero was always someone who had died, while a martyr just meant one who bore witness, who might well survive. And speaking of ancient Greece, a very Greek answer would be happy or blest (ὄλβιος): see Herodotus 1.30-32, Sophocles OT 1529-30, etc. –  Brian Donovan Jul 12 at 17:46

You would say that such people had sacrificed themselves for the sake of others. That’s fine as a verb because it is used reflexively.

The problem with saying that they were “a sacrifice” as a noun is that it suggests they were sacrificed by someone else rather than giving up their lives for others.

Correcting this leads to the noun self-sacrifice, which the OED defines as:

Sacrifice of oneself; the giving up of one’s own interests, happiness, and desires, for the sake of duty or the welfare of others.

  • 1805 Wordsw. Poems Sentim., Ode to Duty 54 ― Give unto me, made lowly wise, The spirit of self-sacrifice.
  • 1843 Kingsley Lett. (1878) I. 101 ― What a strange mystery is that of mutual self-sacrifice! to exist for one moment for another.
  • 1885 J. Martineau Types Eth. Th. I. i. i. §7. 226 ― Absolute self-sacrifice of the passions and imagination.

The OED also provides a bunch of derived terms that stem from self-sacrifice:

So self-ˈsacrificed pa. pple.; self-ˈsacrificer, a self-sacrificing person; self-sacriˈficial a. = next; self-ˈsacrificing ppl. a., making a sacrifice of one’s life, etc. (whence ‑ˈsacrificingly adv., ‑ˈsacrificingness).

  • A. 1711 Ken Preparatives Poet. Wks. IV. 83 ― *Self-sacrific’d, his Father’s Will, And our Redemption to fulfil.
  • 1900 Inscr. in Postmen’s Park, Aldersgate St., London, ― Mary Rogers, stewardess of the Stella, March 30, 1899, self-sacrificed by giving up her life-belt, and voluntarily going down in the sinking ship.

  • 1668 H. More Div. Dial. iii. xxv. I. 467 ― Martyrs and *Self-sacrificers to but so faint a Shadow··of the first uncreated Perfection.
  • 1903 Sat. Rev. 4 Apr. 421/2 ― It is usual for the self-sacrificer to be a consistently melodramatic person.

  • 1855 Bailey Mystic, etc. 98 ― The painful pelican *Self-sacrificial.
  • 1893 H. R. Reynolds in Life (1898) 473 ― Your self-sacrificial love to a great duty.

  • 1817 Moore Lalla Rookh, Parad. & Peri (ed. 2) 149 ― That precious sigh Of pure, *self-sacrificing love.
  • 1897 Gladstone E. Crisis 14 ― In the midst of a high and self-sacrificing enthusiasm, the Greek Government and people have shown good sense.

  • 1882 Advance (Chicago) 5 Oct., ― *Self-sacrificingly non-denominational in all directions.

  • 1871 Smiles Charac. ix. (1876) 239 ― In *self-sacrificingness,··in the ordinary intercourse of life, mainly consists the difference between being well and ill bred.

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You might be looking for a word martyr here:

meaning:

a person who suffers very much or is killed because of their religious or political beliefs , and is often admired because of it:

a Christian / Islamic / religious martyr

She fought against racism all her life and died a martyr to the cause

Other words could be: a war hero, man of courage, man of the hour, conquering hero, ,lionheart (as in Braveheart film. The hero dies at the end of the film)

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This doesn’t quite feel right to me, and I’m trying to figure out why. A father who saves his entire family from their burning home but himself perishes in the effort is not a “martyr”, although he is unquestionably a fallen hero. –  tchrist Jul 12 at 22:16
    
@tchrist I bet we can call that person a martyr too (A father who saves his entire family from their burning home but himself perishes in the effort). –  Arrowfar Jul 13 at 0:09

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