How Bravery Transformed from Villainous to Courageous

Friday, December 22 min read

What does it mean to be brave? Is it bounding into battle when injury and possibly even death are assured? Or is it simply pursuing a challenge that will undoubtedly be difficult and daunting? The meaning of “bravery” has not only changed through the centuries, but has completely inverted its definitions. What was once a serious insult implying rashness and ignoring sure risk is now a compliment. Here’s how bravery has evolved alongside our perception of action in the face of danger.

From Villain to Hero

Bravery, with its positive connotations, is one of the ultimate distinctions of admirable character in modern society. But it wasn’t always a trait to aspire to. The Latin word bravus meant “cutthroat” or “villain,” and a related word, “pravus,” meant “crooked or depraved.” The Latin barbarus (meaning “savage and brutal”) has been linked to “brave,” but that etymological link is less likely. Far from courageousness, the original connotation was negative, and used for people who didn’t consider just how rash they were being. It was closer to a combination of ignorance and bravado than to our modern-day meaning.

As the word evolved in the Romance languages, the early Italian bravo meant “bold,” which was less insulting than the Latin meaning but not nearly the compliment it is now. The Spanish usage of bravado continued to mean “savage and untamed,” but also could be used as a synonym for “courageous,” showing its evolution to a powerful and positive descriptor. In the late 16th century, it continued to move into more complimentary territory, as the French started using braveria to mean “bold,” “splendid,” and “valiant.” Even still, “bravery” was a term for someone who was “the kind who would attack even when seriously outnumbered” — a courageous soul, but still reckless when it came to having a sense of survival.

“Brave” in America

In 1814, Francis Scott Key famously penned “The Star-Spangled Banner,” describing his strong and courageous country as a “land of the free and home of the brave,” and solidifying the word’s meaning in United States history.

Around this same time, “brave” began to be used as a name for a Native American man. In O Brave New Words! – Native American Loanwords in Current English, historian Charles L. Cutler points out that “brave” was applied to Native American men around the time conflicts were spreading through the Indian Territory. An 1819 document notes, “Their warriors are called braves, to which honor no one can arrive, without having previously plundered or stolen from the enemy.” Cutler determines that this usage of “brave came directly from French brave, implying courage with perhaps a lingering hint of the word’s probably Latin origin in barbarus, ‘barbarous.’”

While the connection to “courageous” and “bold” is the most widely used today, there are still remnants of the more controversial and problematic usages. The Atlanta Braves MLB team was asked by the National Council of American Indians to change its name and end the use of an offensive action called the “tomahawk chop,” which it says perpetuates the “warrior savage” myth and stereotype. While other major sports teams, including the Washington Commanders (formerly the Redskins) and the Cleveland Guardians (formerly the Indians) have changed their names, the Atlanta Braves have not.

While the definition of “brave” has shifted over the centuries, bravery is now as applicable in the boardroom as on the battlefield. Leadership coach Dr. Margie Warrell encourages people to cultivate a “culture of courage” in the workplace, and uses “bravery” synonymously with “boldness” in her leadership coaching. Bravery is now a concept that refers not to advancing into enemy territory when defeat is imminent, but rather to forging ahead boldly based on your beliefs, in spite of the difficulty.

Featured image credit: guvendemir/ iStock

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