The Definition of Courage

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The Definition of Courage

 The current dictionary definitions of courage are inadequate because they only include references to physical courage and omit instances of inner strength.  Three contemporary dictionaries agree closely on the definition although they differ in the order of importance. Webster's New World Dictionary describes courage as "an attitude of facing and dealing with anything recognized as dangerous, difficult or painful, instead of withdrawing from it," and The American Heritage Dictionary gives a similar explanation.  While The Shorter Oxford Dictionary concurs with this meaning, it states that the primary definition is "spirit, mind, or disposition."

        Courage is not just found in the veteran soldier who can display shiny medals or in the policeman who bravely risks his life for justice as portrayed on television or in films.  Suicide is the antithesis of courage.  It is not an elementary school boy who agrees to fight, but he who can stand up against it.  A six year old girl who ventures out on her bicycle for the first time displays as much courage as a young man who witnesses a murder and volunteers to testify in court.

         Courage is a state of mind that enables a person to overcome fear, pain, danger, or hardship. Although different from one another, all aspects of courage involve taking risks.

One facet, physical courage, entails facing fears of possible bodily harm.  For instance, a twenty year  old man, unable to swim, jumps into a swift current to rescue a six year old who has slipped and fallen.  A young fireman who rushes into a burning building to save a baby and a nineteen-year- old Vietnam soldier who leaves the safety of the trench to preserve the life of a wounded friend have physical courage.  Elizabeth Morgan, who risked a jail term to protect her daughter Hilary from her injurious father, exemplifies courage.

        Another form, mental courage, means standing up and not yielding to phobias.  While some fear speaking in front of a large audience, others fear heights.  A teenager who puts down her fear of  flying to visit an ailing, distant grandmother, and a freshman who conquers his fear of public speaking to run for a student council office both exhibit mental courage.

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         Thirdly, emotional courage requires the ability to continue on with life after a tragedy. Robert Ingersoll stated that "the greatest test of courage on earth is to bear defeat without losing heart"(98).  For instance, a mother who loses her son in a car accident does not despair but forms an alliance against drunk driving to insure that he did not die in vain.  Ryan White, an eighteen-year-old diagnosed as having AIDS as a child, served as a model of strength and persistence for other victims.  Similarly, Johnny Gunther, the seventeen year old who suffered and died from a brain tumor, did not let his illness master him but learned to cherish life and, as a result, taught others to do the same (3).  Ryan, Johnny, and others like them display the epitome of courage because, despite the dim outlook for the future, they refused to give up.

        Our present day word courage first appeared in Latin as cor, meaning heart.  Later, it surfaced in Old French as curage (Barnhart) and evolved into the Middle English corage (Webster's Third}.  The derivation of courage stems from the belief that all feelings begin in the heart.  The Spanish coraje, the Portuguese coragem, and the Italian coraggio, resemble these early forms (Barnhart), and  synonyms include valor, heroism, bravery fearlessness, and allantry (Webster's Dictionary of  Synonyms 205).

        According to the definitions of various age groups, courage has many different meanings. For one fifth grader courage means "doing something you've never done before"(B. Daly) while a high school student believes that it exists in " a person who confronts his fears" (Gelerman).  This belief relates to Mark Twain's idea that "Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear - not absence of fear" (99).  Most adults define it as the "ability to cope with something difficult" (Dailey) or "inner strength" (P. Daly).

        To conclude, definitions found in current dictionaries do not suffice because they lack depth and clarity.  Although three types of courage exist, physical, mental, and emotional, dictionaries only express physical courage.

Works Cited

Courage.  The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.  1975 ed.

Courage.  The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology.  1988 ed.

Courage.  The Shorter Oxford Dictionary on Historical Principles.  1973 ed.

Courage.  Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms.  1951 ed.

Courage. Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language.  1972 ed.

Courage.  Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language. 1981 ed.

Dailey, Lillian.  Interview.  Melrose, Massachusetts.  March 25, 1990.

Daly, Brandon.  Interview. Medfield, Massachusetts.  March 22, 1990.

Daly, Patricia.  Interview.  Medfield, Massachusetts.  March 22, 1990.

Gelerman, Andrea.  Interview.  Medfield, Massachusetts.  March 27, 1990.

Gunther, John.  Death Be Not Proud.  New York: Harper and Row, 1949.

Ingersoll, Robert G.  Courage.  In The Home Book of American Quotations. ed. Bruce Bohle.          New York: Dodd, Mead, 1986.

Twain, Mark.  Courage.  In The Home Book of American Quotations. ed. Bruce Bohle. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1986. 

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