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The Independent Online
Courage

JACQUELINE Greaves, the quinquagenarian climber, has been praised for her courage in surviving the icy terrors of the Cairngorms. Hers was not, however, the sort of courage most often associated with the word.

For its connotations are active rather than passive. People summon it up when there is a deed to be done which their weaker selves would rather not do, like rescuing a drowning person when it would be pleasanter to stay ashore, or speaking up when silence would be more popular (having the courage, in other words, of their convictions).

This is not to question our admiration for the remarkable Mrs Greaves and the pluck she showed on the mountainside, but the proper word for it is not so much courage as bravery. A brave face is what you put on things when they go against you. Long illnesses are bravely borne. The trouble is that the word has been hopelessly overused by the popular newspapers, where, for example, an infant under the surgeon's knife can be relied on to be described as brave, though the poor creature has no choice in the matter.

So we may have to make do with courage after all. Its family tree has some curious branches. It was once a neutral word for mood or disposition - your courage could be low or high (Robert Blair's reluctant schoolboy 'whistled aloud to keep his courage up'), the question being not how much of it you had, but what sort. Then, by a natural progression, it meant spirit, or spiritedness. Temper has a similar history, but it went in the opposite direction: if a man 'has a temper' we now mean it's bad, if he 'has courage' it's good. At the same time courage could also mean potency or randiness, particularly in animals and birds. A vigorous word; we have less fun with it now.

and bravery are not coterminous but they greatly overlap. Neither quite suits Mrs Greaves in her snow shelter. Perhaps we should settle for a nice word from Victorian times - grit.

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