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I've been bothered by some guy on my online gaming server that kept spamming the phrase "Heroes never die" for quite some time during last weekend before he was banned.

To clear my mind of this mantra (it is akin to a thought itch now) I searched the web to the origins of the phrase.

First I came to this know your meme page, stating that it originated with Overwatch's Mercy character. She yells that when she uses her ultimate. Overwatch was released may 2016, so if that was the origin the usage of the phrase would be close to zero before that. It is not the case.

A google search pointed me to a Halo video on youtube, dated september 2011, it has more than 3M views. We can then safely discard Overwatch as the origin, just as the Know your Meme folks did.

Searching for related terms, I came across this phrase by Babe Ruth "Heroes get remembered, but legends never die.", that is very close but swaps heroes for legends.

Finally, on google trends the interest for the phrase seem to start around june 2004. The aggregated data starts january 2004, so the trail seems to end here (at least to my search skills); I couldn't think of more places to search further than that.

What is the origin of this phrase, "Heroes never die"?

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    I'd like to share this quote because it comes close and might suggest he was inspired by it: On April 19, 1951, General Douglas MacArthur made a high-profile “farewell address” to a joint meeting of both houses of Congress. (he took this from a WWI song that might have referenced even earlier use) “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” thisdayinquotes.com/2011/04/…
    – Tom22
    Jan 24, 2017 at 0:58

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The earliest-published Google Books match that I could find for any of the various versions of the expression is from the epilogue ("by Walsh Porter, Esq.") to William Dimond, Hero of the North: An Historical Play (1803):

But we have Heros, it must be confess'd,

From South as well as North, from East and West—

Long, long, I trust, to grasp th' immortal prize,

For he, who lives a Hero, never dies!

An early repudiation of the same idea appears in a couplet translated by the Rev. E. Stokes at an unknown date and published in Henry Wellesley, Anthologia Polyglotta: A Selection of Versions in Various Languages, Chiefly from the Greek Anthology (1849):

False is the tale ; a Hero never dies.

Or Alexander lives, or Phœbus lies.

The Greek original of this epigram is attributed to Parmenion, whom Wikipedia identifies as the (third-century BC) architect employed by Alexander the Great to build Alexandria. And since he views the "tale" that a hero never dies as false, that means the tale was abroad before the rejoinder.

The Anthologia Polyglotta includes a Latin version of Parmenion's epigram, too; Wellesley credits that translation to Hugo Grotius, who died in 1645.

In any case, by conservative estimate, the sentiment that heroes never die and the counterclaim that this sentiment is false have been in the world for at least 2300 years—and available for translation into English for as long as there have been English-speaking people capable of finding and reading the Greek Anthology.

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  • Well said. I think that puts computer gaming memes in perspective in more ways than one!
    – BoldBen
    Jan 24, 2017 at 2:00
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    If Parmenion were employed by Alexander, then he must have been born in the mid-4th century BC, if not earlier, right? Apr 13, 2023 at 18:36
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I believe that Sven Yargs' hypothesis attributing the phrase to the Ancient Greeks is possibly the most thorough and well evidenced etymological explanation I've yet come across.

Granted,this does not mean to suggest that there exists no earlier phrases or ideas a conveying a similar meaning, however it seems plausible that, due to geography and the global evolution of culture, language and the exchange of ideas, the ancient Greek phrase would seem the most likely to first be translated into English. Even in the event that the English phrase was translated from the French or Norman or Celtic,the closeness in proximity of European linguistic and geographic places of origin to one another and the overlapping and multiplicity of linguistic influences throughout Europe suggest that there may indeed be one original or primary etymological ancestor with multiple secondary influences.

Lastly, it should be noted that similar proverbs and sayings do appear in earlier and/or coexisting traditions from other parts of the world, such as the Nahautl language of the Aztec, the Arawak Tribe of the Taino language family of Ayiti, or present day Haiti,and the Dahomey Tribe of the Bantu family of languages originating in Western Africa near present day Angola (also the primary origin of enslaved African-Americans via the 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th and early 20th century Transatlantic slave trade.) While any of these particular geographic origins of similar sayings could have theoretically informed the English translation, it is doubtful given the rarity of pre-Columbian English contact with any of these particular civilizations

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