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Sunday, March 13, 2011

Tripping the light fantastic

It's the March Break school holiday here in Ontario, and many Ontarians will be going on trips. The word “trip” originated in a Germanic word for a light, dainty dancing step. Although other languages have a similar word in the same sense, only in English did “trip” also come to mean “stumble over one's feet”, no doubt a reflection on how well the English danced! Sailors started to use “trip” as slang for a quick, short sea voyage, (rather as we might say “a hop, skip, and a jump”), and eventually the word took over from “voyage” and “journey” as our standard word for excursions of any length.
As for the phrase I used as the title of this post, we owe it to John Milton, of all people, who coined the usage in a line, "Trip it as ye go On the light fantastick toe." in his poem L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (now also a fabulous ballet by Mark Morris which delighted one of my ballet-tripping groups last year). Milton was using the word "fantastic" in its then current sense of " Having the appearance of being devised by extravagant fancy; eccentric, quaint, or grotesque in design, conception, construction, or adornment." (OED), so this is just a fancy way of saying "dancing". I'm off now, to trip a bit of the light fantastic myself at my ballet class.


  1. Hello,

    Milton wrote a poem with an Italian title ?

    Thank you.


    Speaking of Italian: would you return to explaining why some nouns in Italian seem to be derived from their corresponding adjective, e.g., "chimica" for "chemistry" ?

  2. Hi, E.T.
    Yes, the title of Milton's poem (and the musical setting of it by Handel) is in Italian, but of course the words are in English. I have no expertise in Italian, other than knowing words like spaghetti, zucchini, forte, pianissimo, etc., so unfortunately I can't answer your question.


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.