trip the light fantastic

To trip the light fantastic is to dance. It is an odd phrase, one that makes little sense on its face. This is because it is a garbled version of a line from Milton. In his 1632 poem L’Allegro, Milton wrote:

Com, and trip it as ye go,
On the light fantastick toe.
And in thy right hand lead with thee,
The Mountain Nymph, sweet Liberty;

It is not light that is fantastic, but rather the toe or dance step. Both trip and light refer to the movement of the feet. The verb to trip has meant to step lightly, to dance since the 14th century. From Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale from c.1386:

In twenty manere koude he trippe and daunce
After the scole of Oxenford tho.
(In twenty manners could he trip and dance
After the school of Oxford at that time.)

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

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