trip the light fantastic

To “trip the light fantastic” means to dance, especially in an imaginative or ‘fantastic’ manner. Here, ‘trip’ doesn’t mean to stumble or fall, but rather to move lightly and nimbly, to dance.

Chaucer used it that way as early as 1386, in The Miller’s Tale:
“In twenty manere koude he trippe and daunce.” (In twenty ways could he trip and dance.)

John Milton, in the masque Comus, 1637, used the lines:
“Come, knit hands, and beat the ground,
In a light fantastic round.”

And Milton’s 1645 poem L’Allegro, 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 became popular in more modern days from the American song “Sidewalks of New York” in 1894. Part of the chorus:
“Boys and girls together,
me and Mamie O’Rourke
Tripped the light fantastic
On the sidewalks of New York.”

In 1967, the 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 words of the phrase with “skip the light fandango.” The fandango is a lively Spanish or Spanish-American dance in triple time, performed by a man and woman playing castanets. Here’s the relevant verse:
“We skipped the light fandango,
Turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor
I was feeling kinda seasick
But the crowd called out for more.” 

The condensed phrase “trip the light fantastic” has often been used by writers who wanted a whimsical synonym for “dance.” (“When I was your age I twirled the light fantastic with the best,” 1913).

My favorite example of its use is in Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where Zaphod Beeblebrox invites Trillian to “trip the light fantastic.” But that’s because Hitchhiker is one of my favorite books.

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