DERRING-DO: daring deeds; heroic daring


It’s hard to believe it was 42 years ago that the tight-rope walker, Phillipe Petit walked on a thin cable between the 1360+ feet tall Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan.   The world was spellbound as they watched this daring performer step out from the top of the huge tower and bravely find his way across to the neighboring tower over the city.

Now the towers are gone as the result of the 9/11 tragedy, but the memory of that grey day in 1974 is vivid in the minds of those of us old enough to have watched it, or the videos which played over and over again for years.   There are performers who are talented, but Petit is incredible.   I saw him walk across the nave of the huge  Cathedral of Saint John in New York City to entertain several hundred young people who held their breath throughout.   It was a minor event compared to his Twin Towers walk.

There are people like Petit who, as performers of death-defying feats, are invested with what we call derring-do.  It is a quality that inspires.    The term is from Middle English, durring-don, which translates as daring to do (16th century.)   In my mind it is more than daring; it is confidence in one’s own ability to accomplish something which others cannot do.

I am one of those that gets vertigo standing on top of a step-ladder screwing in a light bulb.  I have been to the top of the Empire State Building once…and I doubt that I’ll ever do it again.  The thought of Phillipe Petit stepping off into the middle of space only dependent upon his balance and his self-confidence blows my mind.

Derring-do is what allows the Navy’s Blue Angels  to twist and turn their fast-moving jet planes in incredible feats above an admiring crowd.  It is what fire-fighters have which allows them to don a mask and rush into a flaming building.  It is the same quality which is found in Marines who lead a squad into a battle against great odds.  It is what Coast Guard sailors demonstrate when they set out in the midst of a hurricane to rescue a ship which is foundering off a rocky coast.   And, to be honest, it is what is found in men and women who slip into the cabin of a  vessel which will take them to the outer boundaries of space.

Over the years since the 16th century the term derring-do has been used in literature to identify bravery on the part of heroes and heroines, sometimes in feats far more romantic than life-threatening. In fact, it is a term which is used romantically by authors in a trivializing way to describe someone stepping into a tricky situation, even a romance.  But its true meaning is far more than romance.   It is about bravery far above the norm.   We reserve the term for heroes more than lovers.


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