an hero (was Re: Bourke B. Hickenlooper)

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Sat Oct 4 14:36:39 UTC 2008

On Sat, Oct 4, 2008 at 10:19 AM, Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at> wrote:
> At 1:19 AM -0400 10/4/08, Benjamin Zimmer wrote:
> Very nice.  On the 2/16/04 link from the above post, there's a
> comment from Geoff Pullum on "an hero" (occurring in the Times,
> possibly as a typo, possibly not) quoted approvingly by Mark Liberman:
> "NO naturally spoken dialect, not even those of the people who stay
> in an hotel, says "an hero", nor ever has in two hundred years."

It's worth noting that the web presence of "an hero" has increased
vastly since Geoff's post. (He found 1,970 Googlehits at the time -- I
get 139,000 now.) This is almost entirely due to an Internet meme
described in the Aug. 3, 2008 New York Times Magazine article,
"Malwebolence: The World of Web Trolling":

One afternoon in the spring of 2006, for reasons unknown to those who
knew him, Mitchell Henderson, a seventh grader from Rochester, Minn.,
took a .22-caliber rifle down from a shelf in his parents' bedroom
closet and shot himself in the head. The next morning, Mitchell's
school assembled in the gym to begin mourning. His classmates created
a virtual memorial on MySpace and garlanded it with remembrances. One
wrote that Mitchell was "an hero to take that shot, to leave us all
behind. God do we wish we could take it back. . . . " Someone e-mailed
a clipping of Mitchell's newspaper obituary to, a Web
site that links to the MySpace pages of the dead. From MyDeathSpace,
Mitchell's page came to the attention of an Internet message board
known as /b/ and the "trolls," as they have come to be called, who
dwell there.
/b/ is the designated "random" board of, a group of message
boards that draws more than 200 million page views a month. A post
consists of an image and a few lines of text. Almost everyone posts as
"anonymous." In effect, this makes /b/ a panopticon in reverse —
nobody can see anybody, and everybody can claim to speak from the
center. The anonymous denizens of 4chan's other boards — devoted to
travel, fitness and several genres of pornography — refer to the
/b/-dwellers as "/b/tards."
Measured in terms of depravity, insularity and traffic-driven
turnover, the culture of /b/ has little precedent. /b/ reads like the
inside of a high-school bathroom stall, or an obscene telephone party
line, or a blog with no posts and all comments filled with slang that
you are too old to understand.
Something about Mitchell Henderson struck the denizens of /b/ as
funny. They were especially amused by a reference on his MySpace page
to a lost iPod. Mitchell Henderson, /b/ decided, had killed himself
over a lost iPod. The "an hero" meme was born. Within hours, the
anonymous multitudes were wrapping the tragedy of Mitchell's death in

--Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society -

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