Suppose for a moment you’re a Romeo. Not just any Romeo, an alpha Romeo. What kind of dance would you do? Tango or foxtrot?
I suppose it might matter who you were, and where. If you were at some golf hotel on a delta, the echo of a foxtrot would be closer (though you could be deft and add a tango after – but a foxtrot with an alpha Romeo followed by a tango could produce an unpleasant result). But if you’re a Romeo in uniform in the sierra, perhaps a Yankee, it might be rusty, but a tango would be more in order.
At this point, some of you might say “Bravo,” others might say “Bravo, alpha delta,” others might just say “What?” and some might call the bartender and say “Whiskey! Tango? Foxtrot?”
I admit I digress a touch. Foxtrot just happens to make me think of the NATO phonetic alphabet – not what linguists would call a phonetic alphabet, but rather that way of spelling things out unambiguously over radio: Alfa Bravo Charlie Delta Echo Foxtrot Golf Hotel India Juliet Kilo Lima Mike November Oscar Papa Quebec Romeo Sierra Tango Uniform Victor Whiskey Xray Yankee Zulu. (You may note that, in spelling out foxtrot, you say foxtrot once and tango twice. I guess this is because it takes two to tango. Which two? Romeo and Oscar… and the foxtrot is Oscar alone.)
Foxtrot also makes me – and millions of others – think of Bill Amend’s very successful comic strip FoxTrot, which follows the Fox family. It’s one of those strips where everyone stays the same age forever: Jason the prepubescent geek, Paige his adolescent sister and polar opposite, Peter the typical high-school-age male, and their two parents, the doofus father and the all-wise-stable-smart-and-in-control-of-everything mother. They’ve been pretty much the same for the past two decades, and week in, week out, nothing ever goes smoothly… of course. (Compare this to For Better or for Worse, where the characters aged with real time, or Doonesbury, where they aged slowly at first, then a bit closer to reality, and are now aging about as quickly as reality.)
Well, but, then, the foxtrot has, in its basics, been pretty much the same for 96 years: slow, slow, quick quick (or, in the slow foxtrot style, slow quick quick). It’s a very smooth dance, slinking across the floor perhaps as a fox slinks through the underbrush. Contrast that with the fast, clicky two-step of the word foxtrot, sounding more like a tapdancer, and its written form complete with four crossed letters, most notably the criss-cross x. Oh, it does have those o‘s, looking round – but in the sound, flat, no rounding of the lips. So it’s easy to understand if someone unacquainted might think a foxtrot is quick and tripping.
So it didn’t get its name from onomatopoeia, obviously. No, it may have some reference to the movement of a fox, but one source says the name it was first given was bunny hug, which might seem a bit springier than the reality but at least has the softness and smoothness of the dance. However, the name that stuck was foxtrot, no doubt influenced by the name of the dance’s inventor, Harry Fox, a vaudeville dancer and comedian. Harry Fox was actually born Arthur Carrington. Would the dance have taken his name if he hadn’t changed it? Perhaps not – but Carrington is a smooth enough name for it.
But of course the dance wouldn’t have made it into the NATO phonetic alphabet then. It would be beaten by Charlie, and what would fill the f spot then?