Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Tripping the Lights Fantastic

This morning at work, this phrase popped into my head, for no apparent reason. It might be the Christmas lights and sugarplums dancing in my head. Or maybe it's the fact that I've spent the past several nights having party party fun fun for birthdays and celebrations about jobs (more to come on that!), and homemade corndogs.

What? Corndogds are a cause for celebration, aren't they?

Either way, I logged into my computer this morning and thought, "tripping the lights fantastic." One of my morning duties as a receptionist is to send out an email detailing who will be out of the office that day, and in the past receptionists have also offered trivia questions to pass the time. I get a lot of complaints about how difficult my trivia questions are, so needless to say I did not propose an etymological inquiry to my co-workers.

I did, however, do some research of my own. It turns out that tripping the lights (or, rather, light, which is the original phrasing) has nothing to do with ecstasy or acid tabs. WEIRD. In fact, evidently I never even knew the meaning of the phrase, which means to dance, especially if you're doing it "fantastically," or imaginatively, or...let's be honest: spastically.

The apparent origins of the phrase are in a poem by John Milton, titled "L'Allegro," which reads:

Sport that wrinkled Care derives,
And Laughter holding both his sides.
Come, and trip it as you go
On the light fantastic toe.
"Trip" didn't mean stumble around drunkenly, like we may assume from the phrase's present-day connotations, but rather to dance nimbly--quite the opposite in fact. "Light" and "fantastic" refer to the movement of the feet (toe. Because we all dance with one toe). Shakespeare used a similar phrase in The Tempest, writing:
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.

Since Milton and Shakespeare, "tripping the (light and/or fantastic) toe" became a popular phrase in newspapers, poetry, prose, and accounts of cotillions and the like. It was in 1894, when the song "The Sidewalks of New York" became popular that the toe was hacked off, and the phrase morphed into "tripping the light fantastic" on the sidewalks of New York. Which, really, is probably the best place to trip the lights fantastic this time of year.

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