What, me waltz?
Dear Word Detective: Mad magazine used to run a regular feature called “Horrifying Cliches,” where common phrases were illustrated as a literal event, with some kind of odd-looking creature (in a Gothic setting) as the focus. In my example, two similar odd creatures (one fat, one skinny) are walking down a path, and the skinny creature is falling from being tripped by a person who’d been lying in wait. The caption: “Tripping the light fantastic.” I know “tripping the light fantastic” is a reference to dancing, but how? What’s the connection?Where did this phrase come from? — Curtis Anderson.
Funny you should mention Mad magazine. I was sitting in a Barnes & Noble in-store “cafe” last week, waiting for the nausea caused by a glance at their Best Sellers table to pass, when I noticed Mad on a nearby rack. The cover was festooned, as it usually is, with the beatific visage of Alfred E. Newman, and I had a sudden epiphany: more than any other influence — school, home, friends, the alien abduction — reading Mad as a child had made me what I am today. So thanks, gang. You’ll be hearing from my lawyer.
I’m not sure that I would classify “trip the light fantastic” as a cliche, simply because it’s so rarely encountered these days. Cliches are, by definition, words and phrases that have been overused to the point where they’ve lost whatever evocative power they ever had, as in “at the end of the day,” all the rage a few years ago but now, thankfully, fading fast. “Trip the light fantastic” is, however, what I would call a “twit alarm” in that it warns that you’re in the presence of the sort of insufferably pretentious poseur who also peppers his speech (ninety percent of these critters are men) with words such as “eschew” and “indubitably.” I know I’m not supposed to dislike innocent little phrases, but “trip the light fantastic” gives me the wimwams.
Your understanding of “to trip the light fantastic” as meaning “to dance” is correct, especially “to dance with enthusiasm and abandon.” Waltzing, in other words, does not usually qualify as “tripping the light fantastic,” though an energetic tango might. For a phrase that sounds as if it might have been invented by a 20th century ad agency, “trip the light fantastic” is rather remarkably old, coined by the poet John Milton in his “”L’Allegro” in 1642 (“Sport that wrinkled Care derides, And Laughter holding both his sides, Come, and trip it as ye go, On the light fantastic toe.”). Milton, by the way, was using “trip” in the now-obsolete sense of “to move lightly,” not the “fall on your face” modern meaning.
The condensed phrase “trip the light fantastic” has been used periodically ever since by writers who needed a whimsical synonym for “dance” (“When I was your age I twirled the light fantastic with the best,” 1913). But its popularity today is largely due to James W. Blake and Charles B. Lawlor, whose enormously (and enduringly) popular 1894 song “The Sidewalks of New York” contained the verse “East Side, West Side, all around the town / The tots sang ‘ring-around-rosie,’ ‘London Bridge is falling down’ / Boys and girls together, me and Mamie O’Rourke / Tripped the light fantastic on the sidewalks of New York.”