The miller wasn’t jolly with LSD, but Milton got a trippy ...

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A WORD IN THE HAND: LIGHT

The miller wasn’t jolly with LSD, but Milton got a trippy mangling

A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd

Deputy features editor: Sunday Times
Illustration of Robin the Miller, from 'The Miller's Tale', playing a bagpipe.
A merry daunce Illustration of Robin the Miller, from 'The Miller's Tale', playing a bagpipe.
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Those of us (which is to say, all of us) who live in regions plagued by the euphemistic practice of load-shedding (why not just say switch-offing?) are well aware of the power of light. Whether we see things in a good light or a bad light, we are left in the dark without it.

When it comes to language, light is equally powerful. It is one of the cleverest and most adaptable words we have. It can break, fade, dawn, be thrown, go out or appear at the end of a tunnel. It is gregarious, getting along amiably with red, green, blue, sweetness, feathers, years, spots, fire, life, weight, relief and sheds, to name but a few of its wide circle of friends.

It is a pleasant word to say, too. The English word “light” was originally pronounced with a hard “gh”, as in the German Licht (the Teutons use capital letters for nouns), but the way we say it now has a more bearable lightness. It trips lightly off the tongue, like Lolita.

Which brings us to the word “trip”. We now use it for acts of clumsiness – “she tripped over a flowerpot and broke her face” – but tripping was once reserved for dainty creatures able to trip gracefully across fields of daffodils without breaking a single flower or losing face.

In The Miller’s Tale, written in about 1387, Geoffrey Chaucer told the tale of a man who could trip and dance in 20 different ways. He wrote “trippe and daunce” because they spelt things differently then. 

Perhaps a fantastico decided to rob fantastic of its bright origins.

Despite the rumours about his predilections, Chaucer was not referring to a person in a state of altered consciousness, because LSD was not around in 1387. Nor did he mean a clumsy oaf. He meant a nimble-footed fellow who had paid attention in Arthur Murray’s dance classes.

I found Chaucer’s trippe on the Phrase Finder website while looking for the origins of “trip the light fantastic”. This phrase was coined by English poet John Milton, who used it to describe dancing in his 1645 poem L’Allegro, which contains the line: “Come, and trip it as you go, on the light fantastic toe.”

Fantastic”, in Milton’s day, meant something that existed only in the imagination. Since the 1930s, however, fantastic has been press-ganged into the trivialised army of words that mean merely “good”, where it marches glumly alongside marvellous, wonderful and poor old awesome.

In Shakespeare’s universe, a fantastico was a person who did ridiculous things. Like a jester, only more fantastic. Perhaps a fantastico decided to rob fantastic of its bright origins. The words “light” and “bright” come from the same place, incidentally, but fantastic and fandango have nothing to do with each other. A fandango is a Spanish dance, probably well known to Chaucer’s jolly miller.

In 1967, Milton’s light-tripping metaphor was mangled into “skip the light fandango” in the Procol Harum song A Whiter Shade of Pale

The band went out like a light but made a comeback of sorts recently, when a torrent of abuse was showered on them by confused internet users who thought Procol Harum was the same as Boko Haram and wrongly accused the innocently trippy old band members of abducting schoolgirls in Nigeria. 

This might sound like a fantastic tale, but I assure you it is true.

Some might see it as fitting punishment for making us puzzle over their lyrics for so many years. As a wise man once said, always look on the bright side of life.

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