What's the Difference Between Courage and Bravery?

When we’re young, there are a group of virtues that pepper the lessons that we learn, the books that we read, the movies that we watch, the games that we play: Kindness. Compassion. Bravery. Courage. We’re taught to emulate these traits in our day-to-day lives: to do unto others, to always tell the truth, to stand up for what’s good and right. 

But the bigness of these qualities can overshadow any nuance, especially when there are mysteries to solve or villains to trick or princesses to save. So the small, but worthy distinctions between them—especially something as delicate as the difference between courage and bravery—are often left unsaid, until decades later when a newsletter pops into your inbox and sets the record straight.

Bravery is the ability to confront something painful or difficult or dangerous without any fear. It’s a quality, not a state of mind; it doesn’t need a cause to awaken it. Someone is brave—full stop. To the person who has it, it’s effortless; it’s eating a caterpillar on the playground because a friend dares you to, without a second thought. It’s jumping from the highest diving board without any hesitation. 

Courage, on the other hand, is the ability to confront something painful or difficult or dangerous despite any fear. It’s not a quality, but a choice; a person feels the fear or pain or danger, but chooses to persevere anyway. Unlike bravery, courage is driven by a cause; the courageous person believes that cause is worth standing up and fighting for, despite all the clear reasons not to. It takes a great effort, because what’s on the other end merits it.  

These differences can be traced back to the etymology of the words. The root word for bravery is the Italian word “bravo,” which means “bold” but also once meant “wild, savage.” The root word for courage, however, is “coeur”—the French word for “heart.”

So if you don’t consider yourself brave, don’t despair. When a cause is worthy enough—when you have something worth fighting for—that’s where courage steps in. Courage isn’t something you need to already have; it’s something you can find. 

If you liked this, subscribe to the What's the Difference newsletter here