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Words "героизм" and "геройство" look very alike, but I feel there is a difference between them. Moreover, this difference is not that subtle, it's just that I'm not able to define this difference strictly.

Can anyone explain me how exactly those two words differ, when I should use first one and when - the second one?

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    Basically, the second one is often used in expressions like 'никому не нужное геройство', where it marks heroic efforts but without real success/result, at least in modern everyday use. The first one clearly marks successful hero. – permeakra Oct 11 '12 at 17:24
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Until recently, the two were synonyms, however, now their meanings diverged a little.

Героизм is real heroic behavior or act, геройство is showing off. The latter may also be used ironically.

Compare:

Я уверен, что капитан Николай Гастелло проявил героизм, направив свой самолет (когда был подбит) в колонну немецких танков. [Мозаика войны (2004) // «Наш современник», 2004.02.15]

Советский солдат умел смотреть в глаза смертельной опасности, проявляя боевую доблесть и героизм. [Подвиг солдата и лесовода (2004) // «Лесное хозяйство», 2004.02.17]

and

Так что они далеко не всегда погибали. Геройство лишнее у нас не поощрялось. Так и произошло с моим двоюродным дедом, братом моего деда. [Даниил Гранин. Зубр (1987)]

Сбивая ногтем пепел с цигарки, Кошевой сказал: ― Знаю я об твоих геройствах, слыхал. Много ты наших бойцов загубил, через это и не могу легко на тебя глядеть… [М. А. Шолохов. Тихий Дон. Книга четвёртая (1928-1940)]

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    nice to see how language is evolving and filling the space of possible meanings with new word, derived from old ones. – shabunc Oct 11 '12 at 19:18
  • @DenisKotelnikov, actually, I do believe that you comments are good enough to transform them into a separate answer. – shabunc Oct 12 '12 at 23:22
  • @shabunc Did it. – farfareast Oct 12 '12 at 23:43
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    I disagree that геройство is just showing off. It either means real risk without necessity or (ironically) just bad deeds. – Anixx Oct 15 '12 at 14:55
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    @Anixx: isn't it a definition of showing off? Ironical meaning I mentioned apart. – Quassnoi Oct 15 '12 at 15:16
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Геройство still can be used in a positive meaning. For example in a phrase like "Все-таки это было геройство с его стороны." it doesn't have negative connotation (to my ear). If it is qualified with additional words like "никому ненужное" or put in plural, it means "showing off". I agree it is more likely to be used with negative attributive words than by its own.

On the other hand героизм has a stamp of official language (smell of propaganda). In everyday speech you would say "он поступил по-геройски" or maybe "он поступил как герой" but not "он проявил героизм".

Also героизм describes the class of events (generalizing many individual acts as one phenomenon) while геройство denotes usually an individual act.

  • I think that your last note about "the class of events" vs. "an individual act" is very precise. – Olga Oct 13 '12 at 19:46
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I think the difference between the two terms is closely paralleled by two English words -- "heroism" and "heroics".

For example, if somebody is meant to be portrayed as a true hero (without irony), his or her actions may be described as "heroism" (героизм); a wannabe, pretense or show-off hero, however, could be said to be acting with "heroics" (геройство).

It's important to note that, depending on the context, the choice of a verb could be more important than the choice of a noun in order to convey the speaker's state of mind. A whole spectrum from very high to very low is possible here:

Compare:

  • Они проявил настоящий героизм <-- an aura of high respectability and objectivity
  • Она повела себя по-геройски <-- ditto
  • Они продемонстрировали мужество и героизм <-- ditto, although "demonstrated" is a more subjective and less lofty term than "exhibited"

and:

  • Устроили мне здесь трудовой героизм -- в две смены пахать. <-- "heroism" used sarcastically and indignantly
  • Развели геройство -- молчат, не выдают, кто разбил окно. <-- ditto, but using "heroics"

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