Two Overused Words

The plane accident the other day in New York where an obviously skilled pilot averted a major catastrophe, not only to the  passengers in his charge, but to people on the ground in one of the most densely populated areas on the Earth, gave the media the opportunity to trot out two words that they love to pontificate with.  Hero and Miracle. You hear them used quite often, with impunity and apparently without any thought to whether they are being used correctly (though the Christian Science Monitor, ironically, seems to have taken a sober approach to the subject). They reinforce in the listeners minds concepts that should be limited to extraordinary circumstances, but instead are blithely applied to some of the most mundane, commonplace  experiences of human existence, in the process relegating the terms to the dustbin of nonsense. Let look at both words.

HERO n., pl. -roes.

  1. In mythology and legend, a man, often of divine ancestry, who is endowed with great courage and strength, celebrated for his bold exploits, and favored by the gods.
  2. A person noted for feats of courage or nobility of purpose, especially one who has risked or sacrificed his or her life: soldiers and nurses who were heroes in an unpopular war.
  3. A person noted for special achievement in a particular field: the heroes of medicine. See synonyms at celebrity.

The first definition doesn’t apply for obvious reasons. Neither does the second, though herein lies my objection, because using the definitions, the third probably does apply to the pilot of the plane, and perhaps the supporting personnel. Remember, I believe the word is overused, not used incorrectly.

The contention is that the pilot is a hero for doing what he did – maneuvering his plane into the Hudson River, with both engines shut down, in  such a way that the plane didn’t dive into the river or sink, thereby preserving many lives.  He purportedly is an experienced glider pilot, and it has been speculated that this experience assisted him. This may be true. I certainly have no intention of trying to diminish or take away from the pilot the glowing feeling he must have in handling the emergency to a successful conclusion. Any accolades he receives are richly deserved. My problem is one of semantics only.

It seems to me that when people hear the word hero, they think in terms of the second, not the third definition, and the way the press goes on and on with the word, that meaning is impressed into the minds of the listeners. They think of the pilot as one who has performed a feat of courage or nobility, or has risked or sacrificed his life to save others, when in fact, all he was doing was his job, a job he was trained for. He was tasked with transporting people safely from one destination to another. If they didn’t arrive safe, he failed. It’s that simple. He was simply doing his job. The fact that he did it so well, with an apparently successful conclusion against normal odds  doesn’t in my mind make him a hero, in the sense of the second definition, and only qualifiedly so in the sense of the third. If he is a hero, then so is each and every commercial pilot who successfully lands his plane at his or her destination every day. Are they all heroes? Maybe to the people who fly in their planes, and to their families, but otherwise, no. They are simply competent human beings doing their job well.

The way the pilot has been described, I suspect he would agree with me. People who do their jobs well, not looking for praise, are usually humble about their accomplishments. He made sure he was the last person out of the plane, not the first, showing concern for his passengers and evidencing a sense of job accomplishment one usually sees in the humble. No, I doubt he’s comfortable with the word. He may have risen to the occasion and performed his job well, but that’s all he did, and credit goes not only to his singular talents, but also to those of the people who trained him, designed his plane and constructed it, not to mention the in-flight attendants. If he risked his life to save others, he did it when he first stepped onto the plane, not when he landed it safely. He was just as much a captive to the situation as the passengers. He just had a little more control over it.

To my mind, a better example of heroism would be the passengers who stormed the cockpit and attempted to retake United Airlines flight 93 that crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania on 9/11. They were heroes because they risked, and ultimately sacrificed, their lives to save others in a situation they had no responsibility to  try to resolve. They certainly met the second definition.


As you might expect from the author of this blog, the second word provokes more ire. Miracle is clearly a very overworked and overused word. We have taken to applying it to anything that amazes us, or seems out of the ordinary, from something as mundane as pictures of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches, to the survival of someone of a catastrophe they should not have survived, and everything in between. Often it’s used to describe someone recovering from a deathly illness.


1. An event that appears inexplicable by the laws of nature and so is held to be supernatural in origin or an act of God: “Miracles are spontaneous, they cannot be summoned, but come of themselves” (Katherine Anne Porter).
2. One that excites admiring awe. See synonyms at wonder.

Again, the second definition is probably applicable, far more so than the first. The problem, again, is that when the media overuses the term, most people think of it in terms of the first. This in turn reinforces belief in the supernatural, one of the most prevailing beliefs in nonsense we are forced to endure in the world today. (See George W. Bush).

This was not a supernatural miracle, it was the result of human effort and human ingenuity solely. Give credit to the people who engineered and built the plane  that allowed it to be flown the way it was,  even when the engines are out of commission,  and eventually float once in the water- all humans, no god involved. Give credit to the pilot, co-pilot and the flight attendants and the people who trained them along the way, passing on their knowledge and experience.  Again, no gods involved. Give credit to the people on the ground and in boats who picked up passengers before the plane could sink, getting them swiftly out of harms way. No gods involved there either. Finally, give credit to the passengers themselves, who reacted quickly and efficiently, helping each other escape the plane after the landing.

In short, acknowledge the human effort and spirit involved in this simple episode, and avoid giving credit to something that doesn’t exist. Stop calling these event miracles, because they clearly are not. If they are miracles, why doesn’t the god responsible for them perform them more often, when other planes fail, or when other planes are flown into buildings, or simply when someone is trapped in a burning building.

If these examples of extraordinary human accomplishment are called miracles, we diminish the human component of the achievement, and reinforce a belief in – nonsense.

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18 thoughts on “Two Overused Words

  1. Either God was the hero or the pilot was. If the pilot saved the passengers, he’s the hero. But if there was a miracle, then God (or some other supernatural entity) did it, so let’s not call the pilot a hero. Now, we know what the pilot did. Not so with God. My guess is that the pilot’s the hero.

  2. I think people see hero definition #2 because, sadly, it seems to be so rare these days to find people actually doing their job competently. That’s not necessarily due to ability as much as caring about their performance and the responsibilities of the job. Such commonplace irreverence elevates what should otherwise be commonplace, pursuit of competence, to a “nobility of purpose”.

  3. While I can certainly understand that trying to fly a plane with no engines and all the aerodynamics of a rock is difficult, that’s precisely what the pilot was trained to do and the fact that he did it so well is a credit to his skill and training, not to his heroism. He didn’t do anything out of the ordinary, he didn’t put himself in harm’s way to save others, he was put in a situation, through no fault of his own, where he had to react and he did. He should certainly be congratulated for that, he did a fantastic job in a difficult situation and deserves accolades for doing so, but a hero? Not hardly. Certainly not a miracle either, if it was a miracle, why didn’t God move the damn geese out of the way in the first place?

  4. I was going to do a post about this, but you beat me to it, SI.

    I agree with you about the “hero” thing. Reminds me of the end of Band of Brothers, where they showed clips of interviews with the real life members of Easy Company. One of them tells of his grandchild asking him if he was a hero, and he said “No, I wasn’t. But I served with a company of heroes.” And I’m sure almost everyone else in that unit would have said the same thing, “I’m not the hero. The other guys were.”

  5. Good post. The deacon and I were talking about the “hero” issue when this happened. Like you, we figured the pilot would probably be embarrassed by the accolade and respond with something like, “I was just doing my job.” He did his job well and deserves recognition for that. As you noted, there were lots of people involved in this rescue operation, and all of them deserve recognition for rising to the occasion and doing what had to be done to save lives. It was a great, cooperative human effort. That sentence leads to the second term, “miracle.” There was no miracle here. Just hard work by lots of humans.

  6. Well, you have to remember that the pilot is customarily the first one at the scene of an accident, and it behooves him to hit the softest object he can as slowly as he can.

    The pilot did, of course, do the right thing the way he was trained. Quite a few do not, they try to turn back with a power loss which is a big, often fatal mistake. People do it though, for many reasons. Luckily, this pilot didn’t. Lots of luck involved in this incident, no hypothermia, the cabin stayed largely intact.

    When I was an instructor in the army ATC school in the early 70’s, one of the civilian instructors showed us a picture. He was a retired marine major, had been a pilot, flew Skyraiders among other types.

    This picture was of a Skyraider that had crashed. The pilot managed to take off with the wings folded, and probably would have been able to set it back down in some kind of shape, but he tried to turn back to the airfield, lost what he had of flyability, and kaboom. “Just couldn’t stand prosperity” was what we were told.

    When I was in Quang Tri in 1971 I was working a C123 that twanged an antenna towers guy wires and lost a good many of the control surfaces of the port wing on approach. They’d been talking to us and there was a noise, their mike stayed keyed, and what could have been some very interesting last words came over the air: a very disgusted, “Well, shit. We’re Fucked”. They made it in, though, no one hurt.

    All in all, it was some people’s very lucky day.

  7. A couple of thoughts on this well-done post.

    First: Add to the list of what helped save those people the federal and state regulations that require the safety measures. Also, the laws which require that the private passenger boats have regular man overboard drills.

    Second: I am involved, a few times a year, with emergency situations — I was in NY after 9/11, I was at Katrina, I have been at a couple of dozen forest fires. I actually resent the times when people have called me a hero (yes, it has happened (at 9/11 and a few times at forest fires)). I (like the pilot, the boat crews, the boat captains, the flight crew) was doing the job for which I was trained, a job I do voluntarily (and for good pay into the bargain). No question the pilot handled the situation the best way possible. He (and all the others involved) used their training and experience to do their jobs (very well, I hasten to add).

    However, calling the pilot a hero does, at the very least, lay credit where credit is due — Bloomburg, of course, at the top of his press conference, thanked god.

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  9. I agree that loose usage of words typically creates problems, so in that sense, I’m down for your post in spirit. OTOH, you say things that you seem to expect the reader to simply accept, like:

    “Give credit to the pilot, co-pilot and the flight attendants and the people who trained them along the way, passing on their knowledge and experience. Again, no gods involved.”

    Surely, I’ll agree that these people acted remarkably, but what in any of that precludes an act of God? Are you omniscient? Or is the position that no gods were involved just your opinion?


    Ah, I see, the ever-so-common, “My opinion is better than your opinion.” If you want to argue opinions go hang out at the ice-cream parlor and quit following me around.

  11. Actually, cl, he’s right.

    The atheist “opinion”, being negative by nature, is based on a considerable lack of evidence. The theist “opinion”, being affirmative by nature, is also based on a considerable lack of evidence.

    So which opinion is well substantiated and which is not? I think it’s obvious, you don’t.

  12. I never said, “My opinion is better than your opinion.” You’re putting words in my mouth! STRAWMAN! STRAWMAN! ACK!

    LOL! That is kinda fun. I can see why you do that so much, cl.

    Anyway, I don’t see anything negative about assuming this pilot’s training and years of experience are the reasons why he was successful. What would be negative would be to suggest the whole thing was a miracle, negating the credit everyone is due, from those in flight school who trained the pilot to other pilots he’s encountered and worked with, plus those who designed the exit doors and emergency measures, the civilians piloting boats and ferries who came to the passengers’ aid swiftly, and on and on. No, the atheist “opinion” validates and credits all of them, and in a grander sense, the great potential of humanity.

    One last note – basing an opinion on the facts at hand is no act of omniscience, but dismissing them in favor of some wild opinion involving supernatural forces would have to. Well that or just craziness, one or the other. 🙂


    Anyway, I don’t see anything negative about assuming this pilot’s training and years of experience are the reasons why he was successful.

    Nor do I, and my opinion validates and credits all involved as well, so now what?

    Look, I know what you think of me, and that you’ll likely remain forever opposed to anything I say. That’s fine. I just hope that one day, you can come to see through your own little psychological safety nets you build around your arguments. Go ahead, chastise that, it’s expected of you. Did you say verbatim, “My opinion is better than yours?” Of course not. Did you not imply that SI’s opinion is based on evidence, and that Believer X’s opinion is based on “pulling out of one’s ass?”

    So yes, you did say that the former opinion was better than the first one.

    Lastly, …basing an opinion on the facts at hand is no act of omniscience…

    Gee thanks Sherlock. Is “no gods involved” a fact? Or an opinion?


    Anyone can set up an argument that makes them look right by forcing others to accept loaded definitions of words.

  14. my opinion validates and credits all involved as well

    On the miracle/divine intervention business, you failed to give an opinion.

    You can’t, though, fully credit the pilot and all involved AND credit a deity. The addition of the latter diminishes the credit afforded to the former.

    Look, I know what you think of me, and that you’ll likely remain forever opposed to anything I say.

    I find you entertaining and no, I’m not forever opposed to anything you say. You just happen to almost always say something that I’m opposed to. 🙂

    Is “no gods involved” a fact? Or an opinion?

    There simply is no reason to posit an additional factor when the factors we know of sufficiently account for what happened. To not only posit something else, but make that something else a supernatural magic man, well, that is pulling an idea out of one’s ass, no?

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