Trip the light fantastic

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To "trip the light fantastic" is to dance nimbly or lightly to music. The origin of the phrase is attributed to John Milton.[1][2]


This phrase evolved over time. Its origin is attributed to Milton's 1645 poem L'Allegro,[1][3][4] which includes lines addressed to Euphrosyne—one of the Three Graces of Greek mythology:[5]

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

In Milton's use the word "trip" is to "dance nimbly" and "fantastic" suggests "extremely fancy". "Light fantastic" refers to the word toe, and "toe" refers to a dancer's "footwork". "Toe" has since disappeared from the idiom, which then becomes: "trip the light fantastic".[6] A few years before, in 1637, Milton had used the expression "light fantastic" in reference to dancing in his masque Comus: "Come, knit hands, and beat the ground,/In a light fantastic round."[7]

Prior to Milton, the expression "tripping on his toe" appears in Shakespeare's The Tempest (1610–1611):

Before you can say come, and goe,
And breathe twice; and cry, so, so:
Each one tripping on his Toe,
Will be here with mop, and mowe.

The phrase "He did trip it / On the toe" appears in the Jacobean song "Since Robin Hood", set to music by Thomas Weelkes in 1608.[8]

This expression was popularized in the American song "The Sidewalks of New York" (melody and lyrics by Charles B. Lawlor and James W. Blake) in 1894.[4] Part of the chorus:

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

The phrase occurs in Nella Larsen's 1929 novel, Passing, when the character Hugh Wentworth, while watching black and white men and women dancing together, chats with Irene and says, "Not having tripped the light fantastic with any males, I'm not in a position to argue the point."[9]

Milton, Blake and Michelangelo[edit]

Mirth by William Blake

John Milton's poem L'Allegro (1631) encourages the goddess Mirth/Euphrosyne to "trip it as ye go/On the light fantastick toe", and that poem inspired William Blake to create a watercolor, "Mirth" (1820), which illustrates that moment in Milton's poem. It is thought that Milton's poem may have been inspired by Michelangelo's sculpture of Giuliano de' Medici, which represents vita activa (active life).[10][11][12][5]

Syntactical critique[edit]

In a discussion of anomalous idiomacies in a paradigm attributed to Noam Chomsky in his book Syntactic Structures, it is suggested that some idioms are not "syntactically well-formed", and which "could not not be generated by a base component designed to produce well-formed deep structures". Examples are given, including the idioms "by and large", "kingdom come", and "trip the light fantastic".[13] The phrase, and other examples, are considered "opaque because it is impossible to construct a meaningful literal-scene from the formal structure. Nevertheless, these idioms can be recognized as complex constructions rather than as holophrastic sequences. One can therefore claim that for these expressions, the literal-scene only exists as a highly schematic mental representation."[14]

Variations and occurrences in popular culture[edit]

  • A song titled "The Ballet Girl; or She danced on the light fantastic toe", contains the verse "While she danced on her light fantastic toe,/ Round the stage she used to go." It was sung by Tony Pastor at his Bowery opera house, and was then published in 1867.[15]

This is our father who left us a long time ago. He was a telephone man who fell in love with long distances; he gave up his job with the telephone company and skipped the light fantastic out of town . . .[16]

  • The phrase "to trip the light fandango" is used as a phrase for carefree dancing in a Spanish or Latin American fandango style in the 1945 recording of the song "South America", Vitaphone Release 1460A.[citation needed]
  • Chester Himes in 1960 used a variation on the phrase: "Colored boys and girls in ski ensembles and ballet skirts were skating the light fantastic at two o'clock ... "[17]

we skipped the light fandango,
turned cartwheels 'cross the floor.
I was feeling kinda seasick,
but the crowd called out for more…[4]

Trip the light fantastic
Dance the swivel hips
Coming to conclusion
Button up your lips.[19][20]

  • Trip the Light Fantastic is the name of an afternoon show on the Australian radio station 2EARfm.[21][22]


  1. ^ a b Kirkpatrick, Betty and Kirkpatrick, Elizabeth McLaren (1999) "light fantastic" Clichés: Over 1500 Phrases Explored and Explained Macmillan, New York, page 115, ISBN 978-0-312-19844-2
  2. ^ Jarvie, Gordon (2009) "Trip" Bloomsbury Dictionary of Idioms A & C Black, London, page 652, ISBN 978-1-4081-2492-5
  3. ^ Martin, Gary. "Trip the light fantastic".
  4. ^ a b c Smith, Chrysti M. (2006) "Trip the Light Fantastic" Verbivore's Feast: Second Course: More Word & Phrase Origins Farcountry Press, Helena, Montana, page 320, ISBN 978-1-56037-404-6
  5. ^ a b Behrendt, Stephen C. (1975). "Bright Pilgrimage: William Blake's Designs For 'L'Allegro' and 'Il Penseroso'". Milton Studies. 8: 123–147. doi:10.2307/26395366. JSTOR 26395366. S2CID 248658163.
  6. ^ Grammarist, "Trip the light fantastic"
  7. ^ Milton, John. Bell, William, ed. Milton's Comus. Macmillan and Co. New York (1891). p. 11, lines 143-144
  8. ^ Ezust, Emily (2009–2014). "Since Robin Hood (Anonymous, set by Thomas Weelkes". The LiederNet Archive. Retrieved 17 January 2019.
  9. ^ Larsen, Nella. Passing. Martino Fine Books (2011) first published 1929. p. 60. ISBN 978-1614270003
  10. ^ Revard, Stella. Milton and the Tangles of Neaera's Hair. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997. P. 96. ISBN 978-0826211002
  11. ^ Revard, Stella P. (1986). "'L'Allegro' and 'Il Penseroso': Classical Tradition and Renaissance Mythography". PMLA. 101 (3): 338–350. doi:10.2307/462419. JSTOR 462419. S2CID 170793447.
  12. ^ Martina, Enna (April 2011). "The Sources and Traditions of Milton's L'Allegro and Il Penseroso : A New Approach". English Studies. 92 (2): 138–173. doi:10.1080/0013838X.2010.536691. S2CID 162256179.
  13. ^ Chafe, Wallace L. (1968). "Idiomaticity as an Anomaly in the Chomskyan Paradigm". Foundations of Language. 4 (2): 109–127. JSTOR 25000002.
  14. ^ Langlotz, Andreas (2006) Idiomatic Creativity: A Cognitive-Linguistic Model of Idiom-Representation and Idiom-Variation in English John Benjamins Publishing Company, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, page 132, ISBN 978-90-272-2370-8
  15. ^ Tony Pastor's 201 Bowery Songster, 1867. New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, p. 9
  16. ^ William, Tennessee. The Glass Menagerie, New Directions (2011) p. 1-3.ISBN 978-0-8112-1894-8
  17. ^ Himes, Chester. All Shot Up. 1960. Pegasus 2007 p. 101. ISBN 978-1933648729
  18. ^ [1] All Musicals lyrics
  19. ^ Admin, Stereo Stories (6 October 2014). "Walking In The Rain by Grace Jones". Stereo Stories. Retrieved 15 October 2022.
  20. ^ Fitzsimons, Ross. "Nightclubbing". Hotpress. Archived from the original on 7 June 2021. Retrieved 15 October 2022.
  21. ^ Beagle, The (16 August 2020). "Fifty years on: Eric Clapton". The Beagle. Retrieved 15 October 2022.
  22. ^ "Programme guide". 2earfm. Retrieved 15 October 2022.
  23. ^ Marillion website, "LYRICS - Heart of Lothian"
  24. ^ "Tripping the Light Fantastic - Lit". AllMusic.
  25. ^ Blistein, Jon. "Greta Van Fleet Search for Love Amid War on New Song 'Heat Above'". Rolling Stone online. February 10, 2021.
  26. ^ "Underground". Genius. Retrieved 2 October 2023.

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