Trip the light fantastic (phrase)

Trip the light fantastic (phrase)

To "trip the light fantastic" is to dance nimbly or lightly, or to move in a pattern to musical accompaniment.


This phrase evolved through an interesting series of usages and references. The phrase is typically attributed to Milton's poem "L'Allegro", but a somewhat similar phrase appears in Shakespeare's "The Tempest". The phrase in this modern usage comes from the lyrics of the song "The Sidewalks of New York". The following chronological list outlines a few notable usages of this and similar sounding phrases.

The phrase 'tripping on his toe' appears in William Shakespeare's "The Tempest", written in 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."

In this context, "mop, and mowe" means 'a grimace'.

In the poem "L'Allegro" by John Milton, published in 1645, a similar phrase appears, which seemingly refers to the dance-like gracefulness of the goddess Mirth:

: "Come, and trip it as ye go,": "On the light fantastick toe.": "And in thy right hand lead with thee,": "The Mountain Nymph, sweet Liberty;"

The term "trip" in this passage means to step lightly or nimbly. The adjectives "light" and "fantastick" (as Milton spelled it) refer to the movement of the feet ("toe", or dance step).

William Makepeace Thackeray borrows this phrase in "Men’s Wives" (published in 1843), as an elegant and humorous reference to dancing:

: "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."

This expression became popular from the song "Sidewalks of New York" (melody and text by Charles B. Lawlor and James W. Blake) in 1894.

: "Boys and girls together, me and Mamie O'Rourke": "Tripped the light fantastic": "on the sidewalks of New York"

A variation appeared in the poem "Jim Brown" by Edgar Lee Masters, part of his Spoon River Anthology. It appears in a list of activities that divides men into camps for and against. In the poem it is not tripping, but "skipping" the light fantastic.

Modern usages

The phrase 'trip the light fantastic' has been used in several modern contexts. One of the more interesting evolutions of the phrase is in the 1960s ballad "A Whiter Shade of Pale", by the rock group Procol Harum.

: "We skipped the light fandango,": "Turned cartwheels 'cross the floor": "I was feeling kinda seasick": "But the crowd called out for more

The phrase 'skipped the light fandango' also refers to dancing; the "Fandango" is a lively Spanish dance accompanied by castanets.

In a similar manner, Ben Folds Five alluded to the phrase in their song "Underground", on their eponymous album:

: "We'll be dressed in all black": "Slamming the pit fantastic": "Officer Friendly's little boy's got a mohawk": "And he knows just where we're coming from"

The phrase is used in the second line of a 1927 song by Billy Murray and Aileen Stanley - 'I'm Gonna Dance Wit da Guy Wot Brung Me' - a comical duet between two New York types using one slang phrase after another in a vaudeville-like routine. The manner in which the phrase is used, suggests that 'tripping the light fantasic' was a not unusual bit of Roaring 20's slang.

The phrase was used in the song "And the Dance Goes on" by the British band The Mission which appeared on their debut album God's Own Medicine:

: "Tripping the light fantastic": "Let's celebrate our great escape"

The phrase was also used by the character Zaphod Beeblebrox in the film "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy".

On her album "Island Life," Grace Jones incorporated the phrase in the song "Walking in the Rain:": "Trip the light fantastic": "Dance with swiveled hips": "Coming to conclusions": "Button up your lips"

On the album Dandy In the Underworld (1977), Marc Bolan of T.Rex uses the phrase in its original meaning. It's featured in the song "Groove A Little:": "You can trip the light fantastic": "Become a space grotesque": "You can fossilize your thought dreams": "Behind a rusty desk"

Another appearance is in the 1997 film "L.A. Confidential" when the character of Sid Hudgens (played by Danny DeVito) refers to two young pot-smokers as "tripping the light fantastic." In this instance the phrase is used ironically and plays off the contemporary slang usage of "trip" referring to taking drugs, specifically hallucinogenics. This updated meaning of the phrase is made possible by the earlier truncating of "toe" off the end, so that "trip the light fantastic toe" becomes simply "trip the light fantastic," where "light" and "fantastic" cease to modify "toe," and now "fantastic" simply modifies "light." The new meaning that now arises from the phrase is to take a mental journey on hallucinogenic drugs.

The Dream Theater epic A Change of Seasons (1995) mixes this same drug-taking context with the traditional dancing reference:

: "Tripping through the Light Fantastic": "Lose a step and never get up"

A similar usage is employed in Terry Pratchett's second Discworld novel, "The Light Fantastic", which describes the opposite of light, but not darkness—rather something that is as far from darkness as normal light, but in the opposite direction.

The phrase appears in the

Cambridge historian Simon Schaffer's BBC series "Light Fantastic" uses the theme of light to explore the development of science.

The phrase also appears in 1979 BBC television mini-series adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: "Tripping the light fantastic through the whitehall corridors"

It occurs in David Crowder and Mike Hogan's book Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven But Nobody Wants to Die (page 72): "Science and the soul have been tripping the light fantastic together for some time now."

UK pop singer Sophie Ellis-Bextor named her third album "Trip The Light Fantastic" in a probable reference to the original meaning, as she moves rather lightly when performing. She's said it essentially means "to dance"

In Dean Koontz's Life Expectancy (2004, p. 320), the protagonist references his newly acquired dancing ability: "Consequently, I learned to trip the light fantastic better than I had imagined that I could, considering that I'm biggish for my size and something of a gimp."

The role-playing game Bureau 13: Stalking the Night Fantastic draws its name from the phrase.

The band 311 (band) makes reference to this phrase in the lyrics from their song "Loco": "We trip the 'shrooms fantastic."

The band Weatherbox plays off the phrase in the title of their song "Tripping the Life Fantastic."

The phrase is also used by Bing Crosby in the song 'St. Patrick's Day Parade'.

The phrase appears in the song "Barrier Reef" by The Old 97's

This phrase is also found in a line of gibberish spoken by a man under the influence of a drug in Isaac Asimov's short story "I'm in Marsport Without Hilda" (1957): "Trip the light fantastic tock the clock is crowings on the bird."

In George Saunders's novella "Bounty" (1996) the phrase is used referring to the main character, Cole. "The real me was out there in tights, tripping the light fantastic for a bunch of soused rich vacationers."

In Richard Cole's biography of his time with the band Led Zeppelin, lead singer Robert Plant is quoted to have said that the band was "tripping the life fantastic", a variation on the common phrase.

The 2005 rendition of the film Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy features the line "let's trip the light fantastic, baby," delivered by Zaphod Beeblebrox, played by Sam Rockwell.

The phrase is also used as a song name, by the band Chinastyle. The single is due to release on April 28th 2008.

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