Trip the light fantastic

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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] As early as 1908 it was viewed as a cliché or hackneyed phrase.[4] Grammatically, it is an example of a constructionally idiosyncratic idiom,[5] in that it is impossible to construct a meaningful literal-scene from the formal structure.[6] As such it should be viewed as a catena.


This phrase evolved through a series of usages and references. The phrase is typically attributed to Milton's 1645 poem L'Allegro,[2][7][8] which includes the lines

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

The imagery of tripping on toes also appears in Shakespeare's The Tempest: "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."

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."[9]

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).

In 1958, Homer and Jethro advised, in "At the Flop", "If you trip the light fantastic, don't depend on cheap elastic."[10]

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 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." [12]

More recent usage includes a line from Quentin Tarantino's movie Inglourious Basterds; a song title on electronica artist BT's debut album, Ima;[13] Sophie Ellis-Bextor's 2007 album Trip the Light Fantastic; Mary Lou Lord's song, "Lights are Changing"; and The Light Fantastic, the second book in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series.


  1. ^ Lasseter, Jim. "trip the light fantastic". Random House, Inc. Retrieved March 20, 2001. 
  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. ^ Tony Pastor's 201 Bowery Songster, 1867. New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, p. 9
  10. ^
  11. ^ Himes, Chester; All Shot Up. 1960. Pegasus 2007 p. 101
  12. ^
  13. ^ [1]

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