Ever since Perseus went and lopped the head off Medusa, there have been elements of the human race who have been prepared to do anything to avoid the quiet life – people who could only enjoy life, in fact, by getting as close as possible to death without quite shuffling off this mortal coil.
Back in April an escapologist from Yorkshire called Antony Britton nearly pegged out trying to succeed where Harry Houdini had failed a century earlier, by escaping from a grave filled with earth. Had he watched this video he might have thought twice. It’s a magnificent Pathe newsreel showing the magician Alan Alan trying the same stunt in 1949, equipped only with a length of string, some cardboard and a pair of swimming trunks.
Don’t worry, he lived to tell the tale. Until 2014, in fact. If you didn’t have the commentary, you might think Alan Alan was being subjected to a particularly sadistic form of torture. But no, Alan Alan was entirely compliant in the stunt because Alan Alan was a daredevil.
The first recorded use of the word ‘daredevil’ dates back to the late 18th century (a century before the word ‘adrenaline’), around the time when eccentric Continentals were going up and down in winged balloons for the delight of the fee paying public. The word was formed from two other words, ‘dare’ and – you guessed it – ‘devil’. Ah, but to whom did the word ‘devil’ refer? Was it the bloke going up and down in the balloon – i.e. a devil of daring – or the Devil himself – was the balloonist daring the Devil, as a killjoy kills joy?
It doesn’t matter, does it? The word may have been new but the daredevil wasn’t. Even by the late 1700s, men and women had been sticking feathers to their arms and jumping off towers for the best part of a thousand years, all to escape the mundanity of the daily grind.
The age of motorised transport presented the daredevil with all sorts of new possibilities, from walking up and down the roof of steaming trains to riding motorbikes around vertical walls or leaping over canyons. But amidst all that high-speed heroism, there was still something more captivating about an old woman floating over Niagara Falls in a barrel or a Frenchman dancing between the Twin Towers on a rope.
Because the beauty of becoming a daredevil is that you don’t need much in the way of equipment. Why go to the expense of taking a balloon into space, for example, when you can keep your feet on the ground and stick your head in the jaws of a lion?
So if you’ve spent the last couple of weeks being made to feel inadequate by all those Olympians in Rio and you’ve vowed to push yourself a bit harder this weekend, get yourself a small canon and a crash helmet and immortality could be yours.
Until it all goes wrong, of course.
This week’s word was inspired by Moto2 rider Sam Lowes, interviewed for Seven46.