Daring To Do

I’m glad to see in this week’s British radio and television listings magazine, ‘Radio Times’, that the noun derring-do is still in use. In trailing a programme about the Dam Busters, it speaks of ‘the combinbation of audacity, ingenuity and derring-do involved in bombing German dams to flood the Ruhr valley’. Derring-do means, in the OED’s definition, ‘daring action or feats, “desperate courage”.’

As LanguageHat and others have explained, it has its origin in these lines from Chaucer’s ‘Troilus and Criseyde’:

Troylus was neuere vn-to no wight in no degre secounde,
In dorryng don þat longeth to a knyght.

(Troilus never stood in second place to any man in daring to do all that was expected of a knight)

A series of variations, misprints and misunderstandings in the work of subsequent writers, as well as  incidental developments in the language, changed the spelling from dorryng don to derring-do, and changed the construction from a verb phrase to a noun phrase, and thus changed the meaning.

It’s a reminder of how a usage can become established in the language by chance. Those who regard almost any change in the language today as a sign of the ruin of English, and probably the end of civilisation as we know it as well, would, I imagine, not insist that we now abandon a usage endorsed by writers as varied as Spenser, Scott and Bulwer-Lytton.

As a bonus, take note of Chaucer’s double negative in Troylus was neuere vn-to no wight.

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3 Comments

Filed under English Language, Vocabulary

3 responses to “Daring To Do

  1. Out of interest, has there been any coverage of Gibson’s dog? Or of the codename Gibson used to confirm the breach of the Möhne Dam?

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    • I haven’t seen the programme, and there was nothing about the codename or Gibson’s dog in the Radio Times, but the Wikipedia article mentions both.

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