The Misuse of "Bystander"

by Thomas Sartor

I get A LOT of emails about heroism. Not from actual people, though that does happen from time to time. I have a never-ending Google Alert for the words “hero,” “heroic,” and “heroism.” Several times a day I receive emails highlighting articles mentioning these words. My inbox is overflowing with these Google Alerts. For someone who likes his inbox clean and organized it’s a monstrosity of an idea that feels almost abusive. The anguish I put myself through to bring you all articles about heroes and heroism could only be referred to as exaggerated but I needed an opening paragraph, so here we are.

Buried amongst the articles describing the “heroic” performances of professional athletes, soon to be released super-hero films, and the occasional article about Guitar Hero, I find the articles about everyday heroes. Recently I’ve read about “bystanders” rescuing people from house fires, dog attacks, even gun- shot wounds. It’s an interesting way to find stories of ordinary people acting in extraordinary ways, as well as to learn that Thembba Zwane “heroically” scored two goals against Wydad Casablanca in the CAF Champions League. Who knew? We use the word hero too much, but that’s not what I’m here to write about. I’m here to share my disappointment of the common misuse of the word “bystander.”

We see reporters and journalists misuse “bystander” more often than we might realize. It took me the better part of five minutes to find these three examples:

  • “Hundreds of people are saved from drowning every year by bystanders…” – The Sydney Morning Herald

  • “According to investigators, a bystander saw the wreck and tried to help; but was injured in the process.” –WKYT Lexington, KY

  • “Heroic Bystanders rescue dog from ice- but discover animal is actually a WOLF.” –Hilarious title from The Mirror

It is, in fairness, an understandable mistake. Surely the fact that these people were standing nearby qualifies them as “bystanders,” right? Well, luckily for us we have the definition for “bystander.” A bystander is “a person who is present at an event or incident but does not take part.” If we take a look back at the quotes I’ve taken from articles, we can clearly see that the people being referenced aren’t bystanders. They all interjected. They all took part.

So then what word should we be using to describe these people? Knowing the definition of “bystander,” we know these people don’t qualify. At the Hero Construction Company we believe a “hero” is “someone who takes or has taken action, for the good of others, despite a risk.” These people took action when no one else did. They did not stand by. They each actively took part in the situation they found themselves in for the good of others despite a risk. They are heroes.

Whether on television or in writing, no one seems to be correcting this mistake. It may not seem like a massive error but we should be describing these situations and people accurately. Heroes act heroically. Bystanders stand by. The actual bystanders who were present during the events in the aforementioned articles were not mentioned because they didn’t do anything. Being a bystander is much safer, but to act heroically we are obligated to take part. The people saving others from drowning, trying to help after car wrecks, and unknowingly rescuing wolves are heroes, not bystanders. So let’s leave the word “bystanders” for the people who stood by while the heroes got things done.

Bonus Material

Here are the articles that I referenced.

The Sydney Morning Herald


The Mirror

Matt Langdon