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Derring-do

Jeffery Deaver, the American thriller writer who continued the James Bond franchise by writing Carte Blanche in 2011, said in a recent newspaper interview about the original Bond novels, “I began reading them when I was nine or 10, enthralled by their sense of adventure and derring-do.”

Deaver moved Bond to the 2000s, making his superhero a veteran of Afghanistan. Though derring-do, meaning heroic acts, is still around, his vocabulary here evokes the nineteenth century rather than the twenty-first. It was currently unfashionable authors such as Sir Walter Scott and Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton who brought the ancient word down from the musty attic of the English language as a mock-archaism to spice up their historical novels. As with so many old words, it was Scott who led the resurrection:

“O no! I will put my faith in the good knight whose axe hath rent heart-of-oak and bars of iron. — Singular,” he again muttered to himself, “if there be two who can do a deed of such derring-do!”

Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott, 1819.

Scott added a footnote to explain that derring-do meant desperate courage. What he didn’t realise was that the word was a linguistic misconstruction.

The story begins with Geoffrey Chaucer. In Troilus and Criseyde of 1371 he described his hero as “in no degre secounde in dorrying don that longeth to a knyght”, meaning that Troilus was second to none in daring to do what befitted a knight. The following century the poet John Lydgate misunderstood dorrying don as a noun phrase that meant some masculine quality. In reprinting Lydgate’s works after his death, a printer changed the phrase to derryinge do (the role of printers in amending the language has been underestimated). The mischief was completed by the poet Edmund Spenser, who respelled it as derring-doe in The Shepheardes Calender of 1579 and explained it as manhood and chivalry. It then fell into disuse until Scott resuscitated it with a different sense.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 2 Jun. 2012

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 2 June 2012.