Though heroine is a legitimate word with an adequate pedigree,

Heroine (n.)
1650s, from Latin heroine, heroina (plural heroinae) "a female hero, a demigoddess" (such as Medea), from Greek heroine, fem. of heros (see hero (n.1)). As "principal female character" in a drama or poem, from 1715.

the term hero originally applied to both male and female progeny resulting from the conjugal union of an immortal and a mortal. Such offspring were considered demigods, and their cult was one of the most distinctive features of ancient Greek religion.

In time, hero and heroine would come to refer to mere mortals who, in the face of danger and adversity, or from a position of weakness, displayed great courage and the willingness to sacrifice themselves for the greater good of humanity. This later definition, while originally referring to martial courage or excellence, also evolved, and was eventually extended to moral excellence in general.

My question, then, is this:

Given the fact that hero originally referred to 1) phylogenetic status (demigod-ness), and then 2) to personal characteristics (courage, bravery, self-sacrifice, etc.) without reference to gender (which had no bearing whatsoever), in this modern world of enlightened sensibilities, especially with respect to issues of gender equality (I’m getting to it!), should we continue to make a gender distinction between persons who possess heroic qualities? Does such a distinction retain any legitimacy?

(I’d like to include a “shout-out” to medica for supplying me with this, my first EL&U question.)

  • It is safer to disregard historical denotations / connotations when assessing current ones. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 21 '14 at 5:48
  • 2
    I'm unconvinced by your premise that today, "enlightened sensibilities, especially with respect to issues of gender equality" are prevalent, even though I wish they were. Indeed, I see plenty of evidence that also in 'advanced' societies like Britain and America, women are still treated by many individuals (and in some respects by companies too) as if they are inherently inferior and less capable, and mainly useful as an exploitable source of cheap labour, vessels of fertility, and/or objects of desire for sexually (and often physically) aggressive men. Women are still having to fight sexism. – Erik Kowal Dec 21 '14 at 6:38
  • @Erik Kowal, precisely my point, in "'advanced' societies like Britain and America" lip-service is normally paid to the 'ideal' of equality and especially gender equality. I just wonder if progressive thinker ought not pay more than lip-service to their claimed ideals? And thanks for the edit. I have so much to learn here. – user98990 Dec 21 '14 at 6:45
  • Related: english.stackexchange.com/questions/175162/… – user66974 Dec 21 '14 at 7:57
  • @Josh61, thank you Josh, that link was on-point. How do I research whether or no the same type of question was posed before I post? – user98990 Dec 22 '14 at 5:27

A "world of gender equality" is more of a fictional concept than what we actually live in. Even in the most ideal circumstances, women are not usually treated as well as men. The fight for equality continues, and the use of gender-neutral language is one of the tools in that fight.

This Government of Canada link gives some examples on what kinds of things to write and not to write, if you want to write in a gender-neutral way. It is a fairly conservative document, even recommending against the use of singular they, but overall the advice is intended to avoid sexism in writing. One of its recommendations is to avoid feminine words when the unmarked word serves as well - for example it says to use actor instead of actress. It doesn't specifically address heroine but would probably suggest using hero instead. There are other style guides that would agree, while style guides that do not care about, or disparage gender-neutral writing would disagree.

If your intention is to write in a way that abolishes sexist language, then you shouldn't use the word heroine. However, if your text wishes to call out the fact that this hero is female, then the word might serve you well in that regard.


Depends on your intent. If the gender of the individual matters, "heroine" is no more inappropriate than "woman". If the gender doesn't matter, a gender-free term may be preferable. The purpose of language is to communicate; use the words that do the job.


As someone has written,'The purpose of language is to communicate.' But that's not the complete story.

Clarity is imperative and a pleasing style highly desirable. But it's also very important to take reasonable care to try to use terms etc that are the least likely to give rise to unwanted connotations and especially offence. Having separate terms for male/female counterparts might often be seen as arbitrarily discriminatory, perhaps to the point of sexist (poet/poetess; actor/actress; hero/heroine ...) though sometimes as sensible categorisation (father/mother; husband/wife; duke/duchess(?) ).

Men and women aren't identical; they're gifted in different areas (generalising, of course). I wouldn't go to watch a ladies' cricket match (but then, I'd probably only go to watch the ICC matches nowadays, were they a little more accessible). I think that fewer lady drivers need to retake their tests. But making / perpetuating unwarranted distinctions by language choice (and saying 'But they shouldn't be offended; it's just an economical use of language to use dual-function terms' is usually arrogance) is unacceptable.

Grace Darling is not my heroine.

  • I appreciate your attention, but who is Grace? And don't call me darling! :-) – user98990 Jan 8 '15 at 18:08
  • @Little Eva Grace is a boy with a dirty face, surely. Plays cricket. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 8 '15 at 20:47
  • Don't try an clean it up now, old man! AmE prison slang. :-) As one of the moderators (?) here has noted, I too am amazed by the different culturalisms (?) between AmE and BrE and how I need an interpreter to understand or truly "grok" my own language. And don't all me Shirley, either. – user98990 Jan 8 '15 at 22:43