Trip the light fantastic

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To "trip the light fantastic" is to dance nimbly or lightly to music.[1][2]


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

Come, 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 popularised in the American song "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.

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.[9]

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."[10]

In the opening monologue of Tennessee Williams’ 1944 play, The Glass Menagerie, the character Tom addresses the audience, indicates a photograph, and says:

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 . . .[11]

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 ... "[12]

In 1967, the English rock band Procol Harum released its song, "A Whiter Shade of Pale" with lyrics by Keith Reid, which includes the phrase

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

In 1973, Stephen Sondheim employed two plays on the phrase ("trip the light fandango" and "pitch the quick fantastic") in the song "The Miller’s Son," from his musical A Little Night Music.[13] In 1985, rock band Marillion released its song "Heart of Lothian" which included the line "and the trippers of the light fantastic, bow down, hoe-down."[14] American rock band Greta Van Fleet recorded a song titled "Trip the Light Fantastic" for their 2021 album The Battle at Garden's Gate.[15]

"Mirth" by William Blake

Milton, Blake and Michelangelo[edit]

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).[16][17][18][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", or "trip the light fantastic".[19] The phrase is considered "opaque because it is impossible to construct a meaningful literal-scene from the formal structure."[20]


  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
  7. ^ Milton, John. Bell, William, ed. Milton's Comus. Macmillan and Co. New York (1891). page. 11, lines 143-144
  8. ^ Ezust, Emily (2009–2014). "Since Robin Hood (Anonymous, set by Thomas Weelkes". The LiederNet Archive. Retrieved January 17, 2019.
  9. ^ Tony Pastor's 201 Bowery Songster, 1867. New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, p. 9
  10. ^ Larsen, Nella. Passing. Martino Fine Books (2011) first published 1929. p. 60. ISBN 978-1614270003
  11. ^ William, Tennessee. The Glass Menagerie, New Directions (2011) p. 1-3.ISBN 978-0-8112-1894-8
  12. ^ Himes, Chester; All Shot Up. 1960. Pegasus 2007 p. 101
  13. ^ Sondheim, Stephen (1973). A Little Night Music. Hal Leonard Music Publishing. Retrieved 8 April 2019.
  14. ^
  15. ^ Blistein, Jon. "Greta Van Fleet Search for Love Amid War on New Song 'Heat Above'". Rolling Stone online. February 10, 2021.
  16. ^ Revard, Stella. Milton and the Tangles of Neaera's Hair. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997. P. 96. ISBN 978-0826211002
  17. ^ 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.
  18. ^ 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.
  19. ^ Chafe, Wallace L. (1968). "Idiomaticity as an Anomaly in the Chomskyan Paradigm". Foundations of Language. 4 (2): 109–127. JSTOR 25000002.
  20. ^ 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

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