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Trip the light fantastic

November 3, 2014

Trip the light fantastic – that’s a strange expression, isn’t it? It’s a jocular idiom meaning ‘dance’, or ‘go dancing’. If you think about it, it doesn’t really make sense. The light fantastic what? Or is ‘light’ supposed to be a noun there, and ‘fantastic’ an adjective which un-Englishly follows it? But in that case, how does one trip the light, and what does that even mean?

These are all rhetorical questions, of course. Like many idioms it’s not susceptible to logical analysis. It’s just a funny way of saying ‘dancing’. And most people who use it don’t know that it’s a corruption of a couple of lines which do make sense from Milton’s poem L’Allegro: ‘Come, and trip it as you go/ On the light fantastic toe’.

I suspect that the line ‘We skipped a light fandango’ from the Procul Harum song, Whiter Shade of Pale, has the same origin.

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