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AFTER the Princess of Wales had used the word daunting or daunted about six times during the first 15 minutes of her television interview with Martin Bashir ("I was not daunted, and am not daunted, by the responsibilities" etc), a strange image began to replace the pitiful figure on the screen. It was of the fallen angel, of whom Milton wrote that "Care sat on his faded cheek, but under brows Of dauntless courage, and considerate pride Waiting revenge." But perhaps a better exemplar would have been that tough cookie Queen Margaret of Anjou, who, interviewed by Louis XI, complained that mischance had trod her title down and "heart is drowned in cares", according to the Shakespeare transcript. Come, said Louis, "Let thy dauntless mind Still ride in triumph." By her repeated use of daunt, Diana set a volley of famous echoes rolling.

Most are the stuff of high romance and the doings of armoured knights and heroes, right for an aspiring Queen of Hearts, no cardboard character one hopes. Scott's Young Lochinvar is "dauntless in war". Macaulay's Horatius and his two companions are "the dauntless three". and Gray's village Hampden, imitating the action of that statesman who stood up so bravely to the first King Charles, has a dauntless breast.

In the Middle Ages to daunt, an Old French remark, meant to "vanquish". but also to "break in" or tame a beast, as one might (for example) a refractory filly. It was towards the end of the period that it got its present meaning of "dispirit". A modern Sloane or Hooray, who likes to talk in a laid- back way, might say they found a difficult social engagement "a bit daunting", just as they would be "devastated" (another of Diana's words) if they missed it. But devastate is more or less played out now. Not so daunt. Take away the "a bit" and just say "daunting" and it will be understood that you really mean it.

Nicholas Bagnall