Q From Lois Culver: To trip the light fantastic. I know what it means, but why the light fantastic part?
A You’re probably that much ahead of some readers, so let me nod in the direction of all those who do know, while telling everyone else that to trip the light fantastic is an extravagant way of referring to dancing, a phrase rather more common years ago than it is now.
Just for once, it is possible to point the finger at the author of a saying. The phrase is from the mind and pen of John Milton and appeared in his lyric poem L’Allegro, published in 1645. The Italian title can be translated as “the cheerful man”, and the poem is directed to the goddess Mirth:
Haste thee, Nymph, and bring with thee
Jest, and youthful Jollity,
Quips and cranks and wanton wiles,
Nods and becks and wreathed smiles
Such as hang on Hebe’s cheek,
And love to live in dimple sleek;
Sport that wrinkled Care derides,
And Laughter holding both his sides.
Come, and trip it, as you go,
On the light fantastic toe;
And in thy right hand lead with thee
The mountain-nymph, sweet Liberty;
And, if I give thee honour due,
Mirth, admit me of thy crew,
To live with her, and live with thee,
In unreproved pleasures free ...
We’ve lost the sense now, because to trip here doesn’t mean to catch one’s foot and stumble or fall, but rather to move lightly and nimbly, to dance. This was what the word meant when it appeared in the language in the fourteenth century. And fantastic (or fantastick, as Milton originally spelled it) has here a sense of something marked by extravagant fancy, perhaps capricious or impulsive.
Milton’s lines were borrowed as an elevated or humorous way to refer to dancing, first as the phrase trip the light fantastic toe. William Makepeace Thackeray included it in one of his lesser-known works, Men’s Wives of 1843: “Mrs. Crump sat in a little bar, profusely ornamented with pictures of the dancers of all ages, from Hillisberg, Rose, Parisot, who plied the light fantastic toe in 1805, down to the Sylphides of our day”. Later it was used in a truncated form without the final word. Losing that — as well as the ancient meaning of the first word and the original sense of fantastic — makes the whole saying more than a little obscure to us moderns.
That it has survived so long, at least in the United States, is probably due to a song of 1894, words by Charles B Lawler, which appeared in a musical comedy called The Sidewalks of New York (a title that was presumably borrowed for that of the recent film starring Ed Burns, as well as two previous ones). The relevant bit goes:
Boys and Girls together,
Me and Mamie O'Rourke,
Tripped the light fantastic,
On the sidewalks of New York.
Just to reinforce how mysterious the phrase now is to some people, one online site renders the relevant line as “We dance life’s fantastics”.