Words & Stuff

fff: Dance, Dance, Wherever You May Be

(14 March 1999)

fox picture(I was going to include a gratuitous photo of a fox trotting in this column, but the picture in question was too blurry. Instead, here's a gratuitous photo of a fox sitting still.)

While doing some research on the gaits of horses recently, I came across the term "fox-trot," referring to a particular slowish gait somewhere between a trot and a walk. I hadn't previously known that that was a horse gait as well as a dance, but I immediately assumed that the horse gait was the source of the dance's name. After all, if the turkey trot is named after the turkey-like motions of the dancers, why couldn't the fox-trot be named after horse-like motions?

But then a couple days ago, quite by accident, I learned that the dance's name may have an entirely different origin. In 1913, a comedian named Harry Fox did an odd sort of trotting dance onstage during his Ziegfeld Follies act; his dance became known as the fox-trot. Calmer versions of the dance (such as the "one-step," by contrast with the earlier "two-step" from which the fox-trot partially derived) were popularized in ballroom dancing by Vernon and Irene Castle, popular dance instructors of the period. (Arthur Murray got his start at their school; Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers later portrayed the couple in The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle. The Castles also, by the way, invented the turkey trot.) (To further confuse matters, the term "two-step" is sometimes used to refer to the fox-trot...)

Of course, Harry Fox's dance may well have been named the fox-trot partly as an echo of the already-extant term for the horse gait (which had been in use for over 40 years by the time of the dance). And the ballroom version of the dance includes both walking steps and running steps, which seems analogous to the gait. So perhaps "fox-trot" isn't really an eponym. Still, it makes a good story.

(As for why the gait is called that, I don't know -- is it used in hunting foxes, or is it somehow reminiscent of a fox? If anyone can shed any light on this, please let me know.)

The fox-trot isn't the only eponymous dance, of course. The Castles had two dances named after them (appropriate, I suppose, since there were two of them): the castle polka and the castle walk. The Lindy Hop was named after Charles Lindbergh, or at least his Transatlantic flight, around 1927.

Some day I hope to do a column on eponyms, perhaps citing a wonderful book of faux eponyms that I once encountered. (It gives hundreds of false origins for common words supposedly derived from the names of various entertaining but imaginary people). There are lots of wordplay categories named after people: clerihews, malapropisms, spoonerisms, bowdlerizations, Tom Swifties, and, of course, palindromes (named after Sir Humbert Palindrome, whose curious habit of walking backwards at court got him into trouble with Queen Elizabeth). And there are plenty of inventions named after their discoverers, including the petri dish, after bacteriologist Julius R. Petri; macadam, after engineer John L. McAdam; and the mackintosh (though not the Macintosh), after chemist Charles Macintosh. But all that is beyond the scope of this week's column, which is really supposed to be about the fox-trot.

So I'll close by reminding you that "Foxtrot" is the word for "F" in the NATO phonetic alphabet. (I'm told that "Alpha Foxtrot Uniform" is a common military euphemism for "All Fucked Up.") One day an inexperienced pilot was at the controls of an airplane that had the identifying letters AFT; the pilot was all over the runway. At last, the tower controller, fed up, came on the radio to say: "Alpha Foxtrot Tango, Alpha Foxtrot Tango: do you need assistance, or dance music?"

Thanks to Ian Epperson and Jeepsie for mentioning the fox-trot and giving me most of the above information; elaborations and minor corrections come from Encyclopedia Britannica. Photo credit: either me or Alex Weirich, hard to tell which.

Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>