Q From Pieter Bosman: We have a virtual Babel of official languages in South Africa, eleven of them, with English the de facto language of communication. I am often asked to explain the meaning and origin of seemingly obvious expressions and find myself stumped, as I tend to be satisfied with knowing the meaning without thinking of their etymology. Thus it was recently with footloose and fancy free. Searching the internet provided some answers, but they seem too glib to be true.
A That’s certainly true. I’ve found one story which claims that it’s from the foremost member of a prison chain gang in the American south, who had one ankle left free so he could move more easily and lead the others. Another has it that the expression derives from one-time Thames river barges, which didn’t have a boom to which the lower edge of the mainsail could be lashed, which therefore hung free and was said to be loose-footed. We may safely disregard both of these.
The idiom means that a person is without responsibilities of any kind and can go wherever he wants. Its first part, footloose, also has this meaning. It’s American, dating from the 1840s:
The Senate declared this connection unlawful, and immediately divorced this great financier from the revenue bill, sent the bill back to the House without its defilement, leaving the great financier again foot loose in the world.
Indianapolis Journal (Indiana), 16 Jan. 1843.
It didn’t become common in Britain until the 1940s, earlier appearances being in despatches from the US, for example in reports of presidential speeches or as here:
You see, I was defending one of the worst horsethieves in Western Texas this afternoon, and I cleared him. He is foot-loose now, and I’m afraid he will come around to-night and steal my horses. Nobody’s horses will be safe until that double dyed scoundrel is out of town.
Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle, 19 Jun. 1886. In a column headed American Cuttings.
Fancy originally had the meaning of a fantasy, a ghost or a hallucination. It came to mean a whim or caprice and an inclination towards love, a sense that was taken over into fancy-free. This is natively British and means to be unconstrained by amorous entanglements, having no sweetheart to tie one down. Shakespeare is the first recorded user, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream of about 1600.
The evidence suggests that the two words were put together about 1880 in the US to make a neatly balanced alliterative phrase. This is the first I’ve been able to find:
All of which, fellow citizens, means that the people are footloose and fancy free.
Jackson Sentinel (Maquoketa, Iowa), 19 Oct. 1882.
The combined expression footloose and fancy-free isn’t recorded in the UK until the 1950s, presumably a wartime import by US armed forces. The first appearance in the Times is in 1954 and refers to a revue with that title. It only becomes common in the 1960s.