Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Episode 91: Trip the Light Fantastic Show Notes

 Show notes for Trip the Light Fantastic. Click on "Read More" to view the full show notes!

Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast

Episode 91: Trip the Light Fantastic

Record Date: December 14, 2020

Air Date: December 16, 2020



Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

I’m Dan Pugh


And I’m Shauna Harrison

Every week, we take an idiom, or other turn of phrase, and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

This week, we are talking about… dancing! 

There are a lot of expressions related to dancing that are commonly used in the English language and most have a rather positive spin… 

See what I did there? Spin?

Some fun ones include phrases like

“Dancing in the streets.” used to express a celebratory or very happy mood.

“Footloose and fancy free.” describing a carefree, easy-going personality or attitude. 

“To get into the groove.” means that a person or people are getting used to a situation or activity, maybe even getting good at it. This is often used to say that things are going well or running smoothly.” 

Some of these may end up becoming episodes of their own, but they have a bit of a common theme that I like. By far my favorite of the happy dance-related phrase is, 

“Tripping the light fantastic.” 


So what does it actually mean to trip the light fantastic? 

It may sound as though this is a creative way to say one is under the influence of some substance… and Urban Dictionary does list this as one reported definition. 

However, the most common usage simply means to dance, often with the implication that the dance is occurring in an especially imaginative or unique way.

Miriam-Webster gives us the definition for trip the light fantastic as 

“to perform a series of usually rhythmic bodily movements to music”

With the example, “They planned to trip the light fantastic at the awards gala.” 

Wikipedia tells us, 

“To "trip the light fantastic" is to dance nimbly or lightly, or to move in a pattern to musical accompaniment. It is often used in a humorous vein.”

Another popular modern usage - and the top definition from Urban Dictionary - states, 

“To have fun when going out, especially when dancing under disco lights at clubs/parties.” 

The first time we find printed evidence of a version of our phrase is found in John Milton’s poem from around 1645 to the goddess Mirth, titled L’Allegro. This was published in Paradise Lost: A Poem in Twelve Books in 1678. 

“Sport that wrinkled Care derides, 

And Laughter holding both his sides. 

Come , and trip it as you go 

On the light fantastic toe”

At the time, light fantastic toe (sometimes just toe or light fantastic) was used as a metonym for footwork. 

Many of you may remember that a metonym is a word, name, or expression used as a substitute for something else with which it is closely associated. 

In this case, toe and footwork. Because light fantastic was used so frequently with toe, the terms were oftentimes used as alternates for one another. 

It’s really necessary to break this phrase down a little further still by the individual words. 

I’m far more familiar with the primary definition of trip, provided by Oxford English Dictionary to “catch one's foot on something and stumble or fall” 

However, trip has not always been used in regards to clumsiness or fumbling for one’s footing. At one point, it meant quite the opposite. 

Oxford English Dictionary provides the second definition of trip as: “walk, run, or dance with quick light steps” 

And this definition highlights one of the words that I think people often misinterpret in this phrase, which makes it confusing. Light is not referring to illumination or a source of energy. 

Here, light means the opposite of heavy. So in our phrase, trip is referring to a sort of nimble, light-footedness particularly regarding dancing. 

Milton had used light fantastic to refer to nimble dancing previously in the masque Comus from around 1634 

“Come, knit hands, and beat the ground,

In a light fantastic round.”

A masque involved music and dancing, singing and acting, within an elaborate stage design. The set and costumes were sometimes designed by renowned architects and designers, and presented a deferential allegory that was flattering to the patron. 

Brittannica tells us, “The theme of the drama presented during a masque was usually mythological, allegorical, or symbolic and was designed to be complimentary to the noble or royal host of the social gathering.”

Even earlier than this, trip had been used by greats, such as Chaucer as early as the 1300’s, 

and just prior to Milton by Shakespeare in the The Tempest circa 1610

“Ariel says:

Before you can say ‘come’, and ‘go’,

And breathe twice; and cry, ‘so, so’;

Each one tripping on his toe,

Will be here with mop, and mowe. 

Do you love me, master, no?”

But let’s move forward again to the 1800s. So, the phrase shows up here and there throughout the centuries. Often, we don’t see the exact phrase - one of the words is seen swapped out for a word with similar meaning. 

In the June 09, 1809 edition of the Virginia Argus out of Richmond, Virginia, we find an article regarding John Randolph and a speech he had given.

In this article, they are discussing a metaphorical dance of a political nature. 

From the January 15, 1824 issue of the Alexandria gazette & advertiser out of Alexandria, D.C., there is a section reporting on happenings in Canada and the following excerpt is included: 

“The Theatre lends a benefit, and it becomes crowded - the ball room announces its liberality, and there is scarcely space, to shake ‘the light fantastic toe’.” 

In this article, “the light fantastic toe” is in quotations, identifying to readers the use of an expression that doesn’t carry literal meaning. This would indicate that it was perhaps not an overly well-known phrase at the time, but common enough not to require explanation. And it is referencing actual dancing. 

One of the most beautiful things I’ve read recently comes from the section Micellany and the story Sketches of the Western Country - Extract of a letter from Natches, Mississippi. This was printed in the Phenix gazette out of Alexandria, D.C. on February 05, 1825.

It goes on to describe rooms that are built into the cave. 

Next, we have a song from sometime in the mid 1800s. That puts us somewhere between 1835 and 1865. ish. The Pretty Ballet Girl was sung by Tony Pastor at his Opera House. The score of the song was published by H. De Marsan in New York and is housed by the Library of Congress. The chorus begins: 

“For, she danced on light fantastic toe,

As around the stage she would go:”

In Men's Wives by William Makepeace Thackeray from 1853, we find this quote:

“Mrs. Crump sat in a little bar, profusely ornamented with pictures of the dancers of all ages, from Hillisberg, Rose, Parisot, who employed the light fantastic toe in 1805, down to the Sylphides of our own day.”

This is an interesting excerpt in which Mrs. Crump is looking at a series of photographs of dancers and finds herself in one of the images. Even this short excerpt elicited a variety of emotions surrounding memories and the past. 

Now for a different point of view on dance… In the 1870 book Etiquette, politeness, and good breeding: embracing all forms and ceremonies in the etiquette of marriage, etc. (This is one of those titles that continues for a couple of paragraphs, so we just say etc. and stop there.) we find the quote:

“The wisest of men has said, there is a time to dance. But one, on whom a brighter light than he possessed dawned in far-off years, enjoined the utmost refinement both in dress and manner to the daughters of his people. Remember this when “tripping on the light fantastic toe,” and preserve the strictest modesty in all your movements. Remember also that it is your safeguard, throwing a halo of light and purity around you; and therefore do not affect to be an accomplished dancer, to display the science and agility of an artiste. It is sufficient that you dance with ease and grace—that you enter into the amusement as becomes a gentlewoman, neither with careless indifference, nor yet with affectation or excessive hilarity. Carefully avoid all such dances as are offensive to refinement and good taste:” 

and it goes on to list things to avoid… you know, as well-mannered, good-tempered, behaving gentlewoman. I have a feeling that twerking would be included in this list, were it written today. 

Our next item is from a song called "The Sidewalks of New York" composed in 1894 by Charles B. Lawlor, a vaudeville actor and singer, with lyrics by James W. Blake. This is a popular song about life in New York City during the 1890s. It was a major hit at the time and continues to be very popular. It is often considered a theme for New York City and a number of big artists including Mel Tormé, Duke Ellington, and The Grateful Dead have performed it. 

A note that was little more on the humorous side: New York Governor Al Smith used this as a theme song for his failed presidential campaigns of 1920, 1924, and 1928. 

The lyrics include these lines: 

Boys and girls together, me and Mamie O'Rourke

Tripped the light fantastic on the sidewalks of New York”

The song remains popular today, which was confirmed by its use by Richard Barone and Matthew Billy who wrote additional lyrics for the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. They memorialized the fallen towers and honored the victims of the attack. While celebrating the perseverance of the city, the revised song was released as a single titled The Sidewalks of New York 2011

Moving in to the early 1900s, we are going to look at an ad in the Wibaux pioneer from Wibaux, Montana - December 27, 1912

There are indications that another spin-off of the phrase became popular by the 1940s. “Trip the light fandango” refers to the same concept of carefree and imaginative dance, but with a latin flare. The fandango is a Spanish courtship waltz and is also a term that has been used to describe a variety of Spanish and Latin American dance styles. This was a little more challenging to find concrete literary references for.

There are several sources stating the phrase “trip the light fandango” was used in the Victaphone Release of "South America" in 1945. However, I was unable to access the actual material or any quotes from it. 

I was able to find printed evidence of this version of the phrase, which is in a pop culture reference that we will cover in about one minute. 

A Quick Thank You

This week’s episode is sponsored by our Patrons, with special thanks to our Logomorphology Interns Pat Rowe and Mary Lopez. Your support makes Bunny Trails happen and we couldn’t do it without you!

We are currently reworking our Patreon to make sure it fits with our changing world. We’ll have more information when we start 2021, so stay tuned. But in case you are binging these and it’s already 2021 for you, check us out at Or head on over to our forever home with links to everything we do at


Pop Culture and Modern Examples

1967 Procol HarumA Whiter Shade Of Pale | The story behind the song | Top 2000 a gogo

“We skipped the light fandango

Turned cartwheels 'cross the floor”

I’m not always certain if the 1960’s is truly a modern reference, but in this case, it’s definitely pop culture. For those who don’t recognize this song from its title or lyrics, go have a listen… most of you will likely recognize it almost immediately. It’s been used in dozens of movies, TV shows, and commercials and has had dozens of remakes or covers released. 

In 1973, Stephen Sondheim utilized this - "trip the light fandango" - and another play on the phrase - "pitch the quick fantastic" - in the song "The Miller’s Son" from his musical A Little Night Music

And in 1985, the rock band Marillion released the song "Heart of Lothian" which included the line "and the trippers of the light fantastic, bow down, hoe-down”.

The very best usage of our phrase comes to us in the 2018 film Mary Poppins Returns.

A few decades after her original visit, Mary Poppins, the magical nanny, returns to help the Banks siblings and Michael's children through a difficult time in their lives.

This movie has an excellent song titled Trip a Little Light Fantastic which includes the lyrics: 

“Let's say you're lost in a park, sure

You can give in to the dark or

You can trip a little light fantastic with me

When you're alone in your room

Your choices just embrace the gloom

Or you can trip a little light fantastic with me”

Now, I may have already loved this song before I even heard it, because… well Lin-Manuel Miranda. But also, it just has the best message and amazing lyrics. 

So when troubles are incessant

Simply be more incandescent

For your light comes with my lifetime guarantee

As you trip a little light fantastic

Won't you trip a little light fantastic

Come on, trip a little light fantastic with me”

Wrap up...

This phrase makes me feel good. Maybe partially because I paid closer attention to it thanks for my man, Lin. But I love dancing. I love the idea of free dance. Just being totally carefree and expressing emotion. It’s a beautiful thing. Saying this phrase and reading about it makes me want to jump up and go dance in the rain! Or dance in my head. I think it’s also this broader concept that we all need right now. So much of our lives and our experiences are what we make them. We may not decide every aspect of our circumstances, but we have a great deal of influence over whether we move in a positive direction and how we perceive and then interact with the world around us. Video calls aren’t always as awesome as seeing others in person. But, isn’t it so incredible that we can stay in touch so easily with our loved ones, even when we can’t be together? How much better is this than the options that existed 25 years ago? When I was teen and called friends or family on the phone, I was just hoping that they were both home and available to chat at that moment. Now, we can see each others’ faces. We could be at the park, walking down the street, cooking dinner, cuddled up in bed, camping, or a hundred other places and hear the voices and even see the faces of those we love. Seriously, how awesome is that?! 



That’s about all the time we have for today. You can get the free show notes for this episode on our website, 


Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. And until then remember... 

Words belong to their users.

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