Trip the light fantastic

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

To "trip the light fantastic" is to dance nimbly or lightly, or to move in a pattern to musical accompaniment.[1] It is often used in a humorous vein.[2][3] In 1908, a West Virginia school journal suggested that the phrase was overused.[4] In one account it is considered syntactically not "well-formed".[5] It is considered "opaque because it is impossible to construct a meaningful literal-scene from the formal structure."[6]


This phrase evolved over time. Its origin is attributed to Milton's 1645 poem L'Allegro,[2][7][8] which includes the lines:

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

Prior to L'Allegro, the expression tripping on toes 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" also appears in the contemporaneous song "Since Robin Hood", set to music by Thomas Weelkes in 1608.[9]

This expression was popularized in the American song "Sidewalks of New York" (melody and text by Charles B. Lawlor and James W. Blake) in 1894.[8] Part of the chorus: "Boys and girls together, me and Mamie O'Rourke / Tripped the light fantastic / On the sidewalks of New York." Those lyrics were probably inspired by "The Ballet Girl", a song popularized by Tony Pastor at his Bowery "Opera House" in the mid-19th century that had as the chorus: "While she danced on her light fantastic toe, / Round the stage she used to go; / Had it not been for a man named Joe, / She might have belonged to me."[10]

The idiom "to trip the light fandango" was already in usage in the US as a phrase for carefree dancing in a Spanish or Latin American fandango style by the time of World War II (see, for example, its usage in the recording "South America", Vitaphone Release 1460A, 1945).

Chester Himes uses a variation on the phrase: "Colored boys and girls in ski ensembles and ballet skirts were skating the light fantastic at two o'clock ... "[11]

In 1967, English rock band Procol Harum released its hit song, "A Whiter Shade of Pale", with lyrics by Keith Reid, that included a play on the phrase with "skip the light fandango", casting Milton's light and nimble dancing in a modernist perspective.[8] 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.[12] 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."[13]


  1. ^ Lasseter, Jim. "trip the light fantastic". Random House, Inc. Retrieved March 20, 2001. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  2. ^ 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
  3. ^ Jarvie, Gordon (2009) "Trip" Bloomsbury Dictionary of Idioms A & C Black, London, page 652, ISBN 978-1-4081-2492-5
  4. ^ Armstrong, Robert A.(January 1908) "Correct English" The West Virginia School Journal 36(10): pp. 18–19, page 19
  5. ^ Chafe, Wallace L. (May 1968) "Idiomaticity as an Anomaly in the Chomskyan Paradigm" Foundations of Language 4(2): pp. 109–127, page 111
  6. ^ 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
  7. ^ Martin, Gary. "Trip the light fantastic".
  8. ^ 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
  9. ^ Ezust, Emily (2009–2014). "Since Robin Hood (Anonymous, set by Thomas Weelkes". The LiederNet Archive. Retrieved January 17, 2019. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  10. ^ Tony Pastor's 201 Bowery Songster, 1867. New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, p. 9
  11. ^ Himes, Chester; All Shot Up. 1960. Pegasus 2007 p. 101
  12. ^ Sondheim, Stephen (1973). A Little Night Music. Hal Leonard Music Publishing. Retrieved 8 April 2019. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  13. ^

External links[edit]