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shameless pleading

Trip

Urk… [thud].

Dear Word Detective:  I tripped over one of our cats on my way to the kitchen last night, and after I recovered my balance, I started to wonder about the word “trip.” As a verb, it means to stumble and perhaps fall, perhaps hurting yourself. But as a noun, it means a journey, often a pleasant one (usually more pleasant than beaning yourself on the stove, anyway). Are these really the same word, and, if so, how did they end up with such different meanings? And what about “trip an alarm”? How does that fit in? — Larry.

Those darn cats. Trust me, they’re doing it on purpose. I have calmly and patiently explained to our cats that if they do eventually succeed in incapacitating me by running between my legs as I come downstairs, I will be unable to open those pricey cans of cat food. But it did no good. It makes me wonder if they have ulterior motives quite apart from trying to get my attention. Perhaps they’ve all chipped in, bought a life insurance policy on me, and are getting impatient.

Onward. “Trip” as a noun comes from “trip” as a verb, so it’s probably easiest to begin there. Our English “to trip” comes from the Old French “treper” or “triper,” meaning “to strike the ground with the foot to show joy or impatience; to leap, dance, skip, stamp, hop or trample.” Appearing in English in the late 14th century, the general sense of “to trip” was “to dance or move lightly on one’s feet in a lively manner.” This is the sense used in the hoary (and, to me, intensely annoying) phrase “Trip the light fantastic.” The phrase was coined by the poet Milton 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.”), but is probably best known from the 1894 song “The Sidewalks of New York” (“Boys and girls together, me and Mamie O’Rourke / Tripped the light fantastic on the sidewalks of New York.”).

Of course, not everyone is Fred Astaire, and early in the 15th century “trip” took on the additional meaning, now the most common, of “to strike the foot against something so as to stumble or fall.” In the late 19th century, a sense of “trip” meaning “to release or set into operation” arose, probably from the motion of a mechanical switch or lock. This “set off” sense is used today when we “trip an alarm.”

Given all this dancing around and falling down, “trip” as an enjoyable (maybe) journey might seem unrelated, but it’s not. The original sense of “trip” as a noun in the 16th century was “the act of tripping,” i.e., dancing, skipping, etc. This led in the 17th century to “trip” meaning a short journey (originally by boat), a short “run” to some point and back, especially if routinely taken (e.g., a “trip” to the supermarket). By the 18th century, a “trip” could mean any sort of journey taken, originally one taken for pleasure, but eventually coming to include the dreaded “business trip.”

Incidentally, the use of “trip” to mean, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “a hallucinatory experience induced by a drug, especially LSD” is an extension of this “journey” sense dating back to 1959 (“I took some mescaline… At the end of a long and private trip which no quick remark should try to describe, the book of The Deer Park floated into mind.” Norman Mailer). “Trip” in this sense has also been used since the 1960s to mean “an exciting experience” (“Visiting my old high school was a real trip.”) and “a delusional, obsessive or self-indulgent state of mind,” as in “ego-trip” (“I shouldn’t bother — politics was a sixties trip.” 1979).

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