footloose…

…and fancy free!

These days, most of us use this phrase to describe a person who is romantically unattached and is otherwise carefree enough to do mostly what he/she prefers. I was surprised to discover, via this week’s Alphabe-Thursday investigation, how different the term’s original and modern meanings are.

The original meaning relates to sailing ships, where the lower edge of the mainsail, known as the foot, is securely attached to the vessel’s boom in order to keep it stretched and properly shaped. Some vessels, however, do not have a boom so the bottom of the mainsail either hangs loose or is much less tethered than footed sails. Known as loose-footed sails, these are usually more difficult to control than sails that are secured to the vessel’s boom. Because they are either unattached or only loosely attached, they are considered “footloose and fancy free.”

Another hypothesis is that during the 1970s the term “footloose and fancy free” was used in some parts of the American south to refer to the lead man in a prison chain gang. With one foot loose (unchained), the lead man was somewhat less encumbered than his comrades. The lead man was the only one in the crew allowed to speak to the “Bossman” and was responsible for setting the pace of work as well as deciding when the gang could take a break. According to this site (search the word “footloose”), this is a story created to fit the phrase rather than the genesis of the term.

I must say, the idea of “footloose and fancy free” is fitting for this series of posts. I’m trying to be more organized about my approach to these posts (you should see the stack of books I’ve checked out of the library and the collection of phrase-related links I’ve added to my favorites), but there is something incredibly freeing about just keeping my eyes and ears open for an appealing word or phrase and then doing some light research to find out a bit more about it. Hurrah for Alphabe-Thursday!

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Posted for Jenny Matlock’s AlphabeThursday study of the letter “F.” For Round 5 of this long-running meme, I am focusing on colloquialisms and idioms—words and phrases that are unique to a region or have meanings that aren’t necessarily discernible from the combined meanings of the individual words. I’m looking forward to investigating some of the words and phrases that, simultaneously, make English so very interesting and yet so very frustrating. I hope you will enjoy these explorations as much as I do.

9 thoughts on “footloose…

  1. Isn’t it amazing how different the original meaning is from the way we interpret it today? I am loving this series and your enthusiasm for it. I like thinking of you surrounded by your research, writing these posts.

  2. Wanda, I can honestly say that this is a fascinating post!! I just love to know where words and phrases came from.

    As for the heat index, HOT is HOT no matter where one lives!!

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