There was the following sentence in today’s (June 4) New York Times written by its Op-Ed columnist, Nickolas Kristof under the headline, “There’s a Kind of Hush.”

“Aung San Suu Kyi should be one of the heroes of modern times. Instead, as her country imposes on the Rohingya Muslim minority an apartheid that would have made white supremacists in South Africa blush, she bites her tongue.


I understand “ hero” here is used as a generic of brave or great persons to cover both male and female 'heroes' ?

However, OALED defines ‘hero’ specifically as male, as;

  1. A person, especially a man, who is admired by many people for doing sth brave or good.
  2. The main male character in a story, novel, film / movie etc.
  3. A person, especially a man, that you admire because of a particular quality or skill that they have.

CED also defines ‘hero’ as;

  1. A very brave person, often a man, that a lot of people admire.

  2. The main man in a book or movie.

Can I apply ‘hero’ when I’m refering to Aung San Suu Kyi singly as “Aung San Suu Kyi is the hero of Burma”?

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    Using Hero for a female is not at all wrong but it's also a fact that it is largely used for men. The fact OALED says : a person before saying especially a man, makes it clear that it can be used for females as well. Jun 5, 2014 at 9:15
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    Heroine would be the standard word for a female hero. However, when referring to a group of heroes (here the heroes of modern times), it can be assumed that that group includes man and women. And this woman is a member of that group.
    – oerkelens
    Jun 5, 2014 at 9:27
  • You claim is wrong, Oerk. If by female "hero" you mean "famous and amazing person", the word "hero" is now used for that (for both sexes). See Josh's discussion below. If by female "hero" you mean character in a work of fiction, then use heroine/hero for female/male. The plural issue is irrelevant.
    – Fattie
    Jun 5, 2014 at 9:45
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    I believe it was the convention, back in the day at least, that when there were separate male and female forms, a mixed-sex group would always be referred to by the male form.
    – Neil W
    Jun 5, 2014 at 13:19
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    @Neil: This convention is called the generic masculine.
    – Murch
    Jun 5, 2014 at 16:15

5 Answers 5


I think that this extract can help: Hero:

Many writers now consider hero, long restricted to men in the sense "a person noted for courageous action," to be a gender-neutral term. It is used to refer to admired women as well as men in respected publications, as in this quotation from The Washington Post: "Already a national hero in her economically troubled South Korea, . . . [Se Ri] Pak is packing galleries at [golf] tournaments stateside." The word heroine is still useful, however, in referring to the principal female character of a fictional work: Jane Eyre is a well-known literary heroine. Ninety-four percent of Usage Panelists accept this usage.

The increasing usage of hero referring to women is also shown in Ngram.

  • 1
    I totally agree. "Heroine", really, for better or worse, now means "lead character in fictional work." And "Hero" is now used for male/female historically important person. Shit happens .. nobody uses the "correct" meaning of myriad or apocryphal any more; you have to go with it.
    – Fattie
    Jun 5, 2014 at 9:43
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    +1 Similarly actor and many other labels that have had alternative gender forms. There is still a struggle with some titles that include the suffix -man.
    – bib
    Jun 5, 2014 at 11:13
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    It all seems very natural to me. As bib says you get words like chairman/chairwoman/chair where the sex-independent version is coming into use but some people still prefer the specific versions or use chairman as sex-independent. But in cases like actor and hero if you want a sex-independent word it makes more sense to use the shorter one.
    – Rupe
    Jun 5, 2014 at 11:47
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    Note that with the "chairman" example: IF you were talking about a female CEO, and you were being a bitter smartass, you would indeed sneer out "oh yes, she's a marvellous chairwoman ..." There's no doubt that (for better or worse) the masculine version is - let's put it this way - less open to be used as a negative, sneering term. IMO in the case at hand (heroine: type 1 use) it goes a little further: you'd tend to only use "heroine" (type 1) if you were being a sneering smartass. {Obviously for type 2 situations, this is irrelevant; in type2 it's just a normal english m/f word.}
    – Fattie
    Jun 6, 2014 at 8:16
  • @michael .. you said illegal substance .. heh heh heh
    – Fattie
    Jun 6, 2014 at 8:16

Whether you like it or not, masculine terms can be given a universal meaning (especially in the absence of a gender-neutral term) that their feminine equivalent cannot take. This no doubt reflects a male-chauvinist point of view, but one that is so widespread that one has to accept it.

So while saying “All men are created equal” is interpreted by most as including women as well, saying "All women are created equal” will be interpreted by most as excluding men; this makes it a rather different kind of statement altogether, which could easily be taken for a sexist insinuation.

Similarly, if one took the following statement: “Margaret Thatcher was among the most prominent statesmen of her time" and turned it into: “Margaret Thatcher was among the most prominent stateswomen of her time”, this would significantly water down the meaning of the statement.

Therefore, “Aung San Suu Kyi should be one of the heroes of modern times” should not be changed into “Aung San Suu Kyi should be one of the heroines of modern times”, which is a weaker statement. And the argument does not really depend on the particular word “hero”, but would apply to the use of any term without a gender-neutral form.


There are two completely unrelated uses of "hero" in English

  1. Admirable/famous real person. (Margaret Thatcher.)

  2. Main character in a book. (Lara Croft.)

In the case of (1), yes, it is now common in English-speaking areas to use "hero" for both sexes.

Indeed if you do use heroine in the female case, it is a little unclear .. indeed it could be almost - just about - diminutive or "mocking", sarcastic.

In the case of (1), you should use hero for both sexes. As I say, if you use 'heroine' there is a very slight risk of being offensive/mockingish.

In the case of (2), use hero/heroine per the sex. {FOOTNOTE: as neminem points out: indeed furthermore, 'hero' is today, indeed, often used for the female lead in case (2).}

Important: below in the comments NewWorld raises the point that this is a real language judgement call. For me, it's a clear case of "sexist language," if you will: for me, it's clear that (today, 2014) the masculine form "hero" much more clearly indicates a type1 use of hero. (Maggie Thatcher, etc.) And if you use heroine for type1 it tends to be diminutive, or could even be mocking. I.e., it TENDS TO SUGGEST in a mocking way a type2 heroine (Lara Croft, etc). But I can only say "in my opinion". But then it's critical to note that every single point on this entire site, from spelling to grammar to language etiquette, is pure opinion. What's the best way to spell colour right now, in New Zealand, if you're a computer programmer? Is it OK to say 'aks' in Texas right now if you are a member of XYZ socio-ethnic group? It's pure judgement call based on 'looking around'.

For the record, in case (2), if the main character happens to be "bad", they are usually called lately an "anti-hero." (See the charming children's film "Moi moche et méchant" :) ) I doubt you would say "anti-heroine" in the rare case of an evil female villain -- you'd probably just say "anti-hero" the same.

  • Antiheroine does appear to be a word but I agree that it would sound very out of place over using antihero for both genders
    – Lawton
    Jun 5, 2014 at 14:27
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    I'd say these days, it's perfectly normal to use "hero" of a fictional female lead protagonist, even. "Heroine" is used sometimes as well, but is often used more specifically to differentiate if there are two lead protagonists, a male and a female, as is fairly common.
    – neminem
    Jun 5, 2014 at 15:12
  • How is it at all diminutive or mocking to use 'heroine' to describe an admirable woman? What leads you to believe that?
    – DBedrenko
    Jun 6, 2014 at 7:57
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    @NewWorld - you raise the central philosophical question of this site. This site is about opinions and requests for opinions on the nature of current English usage in English-speaking countries. When you say "why do you believe that" to any question - absolutely any question - on this site, the only answer can be "Based on my considerable experience writing commercially professionally over dozens of decades and continents, I feel that at the moment ..." I feel that if you describe Maggie Thatcher or Ivana Trump as a "heroine" it is a bit diminutive, it more suggests (2) than (1).
    – Fattie
    Jun 6, 2014 at 8:03
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    I'm afraid I disagree; dictionaries are basically useless in hot current questions of language. (The only thing more useless is those 'google searches'.) What you'd have to do on that one (in my opinion) is canvas the opinions of a few "leading" political speechwriters, TV news anchors, and so on, perhaps feminist writers. We'll have to agree to disagree - but only because I have to get back to work; otherwise I'd go on about it for hours. Cheers :) youtube.com/watch?v=i-T1h7J0R-Q
    – Fattie
    Jun 6, 2014 at 8:28

In Ancient Greek it is

ἥρως hḗrōs (male) ἡρωίς hērōís (female)

The English phrase is heroine. You should use it when you refer to the greek mythology or use it in a sarcastic sense.

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    Am I right in thinking that this use of hero/heroine has a very specific and strict meaning, i.e., the child of a God and a mortal? Jun 6, 2014 at 2:39

What has not been said is that, even if one uses the somewhat archaic definitoin of heroine, "a female hero," such a use would not be equivalent. "Aung San Suu Kyi should be one of the heroines of modern times," would mean that she was only to be numbered amongst other women, and not amongst other men.

"Hero" can be gender neutral, while "heroine" cannot be. Hence, when one wants to be gender neutral, one must use "hero."

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