Thursday, July 10, 2014


I seem to have been using this word--or rather 'gallivanting'--a lot recently, though sadly, not because I've really been doing much of it of my own. No, but many people in my sphere seem to be traveling hither and yon, and gallivanting has seemed appropriate to their activities. Then I heard one of the characters on Last Tango in Halifax (a quite delightful show if you haven't caught on to it yet) use it the other night and thought I may as well track it down.

Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid in Last Tango in Halifax

I am going to guess that the English stole it from the French, but I'm going to alternatively guess that it is actually some sort of made up word that mimics French. What do you think?


Okay. The general sense of gallivant is to travel around for the sake of pleasure--you may define pleasure for yourself. Surprisingly, though, no one knows exactly what its origins are. There are guesses. "Perhaps from "gallant", some say. World Wide Words acknowledges the problem, but can't guarantee anything. They mention the phrase "gadding about" as having some influence. Anatoly Liberman who hasn't been cited here recently enough for my liking, had this fairly scathing though refreshing comment on such investigations over at the Oxford University Press blog:

"Gallivanting. All conjectures about the origin of this word resolve themselves into uninspiring guesswork. The suggestion that gallivant is a blend of gallant and levant (“decamp, steal away, bolt”) is not supported by any evidence. The OED has no citations of gallivanting that antedate the early twenties of the 19th century. A humorous (slangy) blend coined so late would probably have been documented better in the popular press and the culture of the music hall. The alternate spellings were gallavant and galavant. The Century Dictionary points to the dialectal synonym galligant. The origin of gallivanting will more likely be discovered in regional English. At this stage it is totally obscure. -"

So there you go. We don't know. Fortunately, the Online Etymology Dictionary has, in a manner new to me, brought us a little poem to show the words first words in print. It's a bit misogynist--okay a lot--but it was published in 1809, so I guess we must take that into consideration:

Young Lobski said to his ugly wife,
"I'm off till to-morrow to fish, my life;"
Says Mrs. Lobski, "I'm sure you a'nt",
But you brute you are going to gallivant."

What Mrs. Lobski said was right,
Gay Mr. Lobski was out all night.
He ne'er went to fish, 'tis known very well
But where he went I shall not tell.

["Songs from the Exile," in "Literary Panorama," London, 1809]

Speaking of gallivanting, Anne Reid may want to keep a bit of an eye on Jacobi. Later the very same night of PBS programming, Jacobi is featured with Ian McKellan on the farcical sitcom Vicious. 

Think La Cage aux Folles. Sort of.

He ne'er went to fish, 'tis known very well
But where he went I shall not tell.



  1. if there's anyone that I would rather hear say the word Gallivant it's Derek Jacobi, in any role. I didn't know he was still so active, professionally that is.

  2. He is equally convincing in both roles, Julie. Vicious isn't really my kind of humor, but it is fun to see these two wonderful actors ham it up. Last Tango in Halifax is quite absorbing and endearing while also being funny.

  3. Ahhh, gallivant. It never has had quite the appeal of sallying forth, but is a close second.

  4. Sally forth is another excellent one to add to the mix here, Nancy.

  5. My mom used to say "gallivanting around" when I was a kid, and I loved the sound of it. She's still gallivanting around, by the way.

  6. I am pretty sure that gallivanting is one way to stay young, Kathleen, whatever the word origin. So more power to her!