Saturday, April 28, 2012

Tripping on the Light Fantastic Toe

Do you remember the expression, "tripping the light fantastic?" Sounds kind of 1960s doesn't it? Maybe your recollection is completely confused by the song about "skipping the light fandango."

The phrase, "trip the light fantastic" comes from a song of 1894 called The Sidewalks of New York. The pertinent lyrics are: 

Boys and girls together, me and Mamie O'Rourke
Tripped the light fantastic on the sidewalks of New York.

Of course, the expression is much older. In the 1630s John Milton wrote a poem, l'Allegro, where he used the phrase in a description of Mirth: 

Come, and trip it as ye go, 
On the light fantastick toe.

From the time it was published in 1645 until the end of the eighteenth century the expression was commonly used. You can find it quoted in poetry but also used in scholarly works on science and philosophy.

William Blake's circa 1820 interpretation of Mirth on her light fantastic toe.

It was in the nineteenth century, however, that the phrase became hugely and popularly common.   You can find it applied to professional dancers upon the stage, social dancers at balls, and all manner of people: light-hearted, graceful, drunk or clumsy. Also in the nineteenth century a comma got slipped into the phrase. Now people "tripped on the light, fantastic toe."

It seems clear that early to mid-nineteenth century people were more likely to "trip on the light, fantastic toe." Late nineteenth century to mid-twentieth century people were more likely to "trip the light fantastic." People who go around "skipping the light fandango" or who "tripped the merry-go-round" are post-1960.

1 comment:

  1. I love this description of the Grand Promenade Concert, the closing event of the June-July 1865 Soldiers' Home Fair in Milwaukee, Wisconsin:

    The throng at the concert was fearfully damaging to the corns of tender-footed individuals, and the concert itself may safely be set down as a success in every point of view, even as a corn crusher. Nearly five thousand persons listened to the excellent music provided for the occasion; several of them drew prizes in the grand scheme, and all, at a late hour, were performing those peculiar gyrations known to the public, through the medium of some obscure poet’s verse, as “Tripping the light fantastic toe.” It was a grand finale to a glorious fair, and a fitting tribute to the late Soldiers' Home fair, to which we have to say “Hail and farewell.”