Sunday, July 19, 2009

derring do

I just used this phrase in a Good Reads comment on Anthony Horowitz's Point Blank a little bit ago. Though I double-checked before posting, I did know it was 'derring do', not 'daring do', as I'm sure it has been spelled many a time. But I have no idea of where the phrase comes from. Nor, when I get right down to it, do I know what it really means. I know what I mean by it, which is roughly 'doing daring things'. But as I think about it,that's probably too easy. 'Derring' and 'daring' are probably not just variants of the same word. The only thing I can think of us is that derring might be from German or possibly the Nordic. The latter is probably only because I'm thinking of the word 'herring'. Well, before I drift too hopelessly out to sea, let's find out...

For once, I seem to have been pretty much right the first time round, which at first was a bit of a letdown. I guess it's actually more properly 'derring-do', but that's minor stuff--it still means something along the lines of 'heroic daring'. However, digging a little further often leads to more rewarding things, and it's certainly the case with this word or phrase. It is in fact, a word borrowed, passed along and variously shaped and misinterpreted by some of the brightest lights of English literature. It first finds it way into print in Chaucer's Troylus and Criseyde as 'durring don'--daring to do; becomes 'dorryng do' through the poet John Lydgate in a nod back to Chaucer; is misprinted later as 'derrynge do' and then misinterpreted by Edmund Spenser, who much like me (though in this one sense only) thought he was encountering a different word and took it to mean 'brave actions'-- though he too changed it a little to 'derring doe'--which Walter Scott then grabbed up for Ivanhoe, from which his version 'derring-do' then became part of the common parlance.

I pretty much lifted all that from, by the way, so have a look if you would like a fuller and very lively account of the above.

I was also pleased to learn that 'derring-do' is what the OED calls a 'psuedo archaism'. We like to think of those times when men were men and acted out brave feats of derring-do, except that, well, they didn't exactly. Or at least they didn't know that was what they were doing.

Chaucer, Lydgate, Spenser, Scott--great men and great writers--but not the most meticulous of spellers, I'm thinking.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

You say satrap, and I say Satrapi

I have no idea, of course, if the two words are anything other than coincidentally related. But the word 'satrap' has come up twice in the space of about five hours--first in the very opening lines of Xenophon's Anabasis, which I took a quick look at in the library today, and then on Yoani Sanchez's blog, where it caught my eye as I scrolled down to her post on Thugs and Caudillos. Here's the relevant quote:

And so I am worried about Honduras. I fear what happened will pave the way for the emergence of another figure invested with full powers. Beware! In the broad range encompassing satraps, the worst combination is when the figure of the caudillo and the armed thug converge in a single person.

But it's a third element that finally motivates me. Because in Yoani's blog, she most recently cites the acclaimed Iranian graphic artist, Marjane Satrapi--she of Persepolis fame. Wait a minute, I suddenly think--Satrapi?

My understanding of the word 'satrap', minimal though it is, is that it refers to some sort of minor, dare I say provincial, power. I think of it as the guy who's sent out to keep peace, mainly by squelching dissent, in the hinterlands. It's a bit awkward in the English language--how would one say it, anyway? Sat-trap? Sah-trop? Suh-trop?

But now, based on Marjane, I'm going to guess that it's of Persian origins. Let's see how close I am, and maybe even how to pronounce it...

Yep. It's a governor of a province in Ancient Persia, which has translated over time, and through Greek, Latin and old French, to mean any minor official or bureaucrat. That's maybe too easy, except that I would never have gotten the Persian roots if I had not realized that Marjane's last name must reflect it.

Why would anyone label themselves as coming from a clan of minor officials or bureaucrats? Well, as it turns out, they probably didn't. 'Satrap' comes from khshathrapāvan, which means 'protector of the province'. Has a nice ring to it, one that anyone would like to have associated with himself or his family.

Oh, and however they say it in in Iran, in English, the predominant pronunciation is 'say-trap'.