It turns out my sense of traipse is a little out of step with some other people’s. A few readers expressed surprise at or disagreement with my assertion that it always has a negative tone, whether it means ‘walk in an untidy way’ or ‘walk trailing through mud’ or ‘walk aimlessly or needlessly’ or ‘tramp or trudge about’ (all of these are definitions the Oxford English Dictionary has). One friend did some searching and, along with assorted usages that allowed but did not demand a negative tone, found a few that did not fit that sense at all: traipsing comfortably, traipsing warmly, traipsing blithely. And while if I were to read those I would arch an eyebrow as I did when I first read of someone “munching fried eggs” (how long were they fried for, to be munchable?!), it just illustrates once again that sometimes people live in parallel worlds for the senses of certain words.

But let’s just sashay over to a different word today. And when I say different, I mean different: I feel confident that there is no well-read world in which traipse and sashay could be used as synonyms.

You could often use either to describe the same act, certainly, depending on the tone you wish to give it: “I traipsed over to the post office this afternoon”; “I sashayed over to the post office this afternoon.” You might have taken the exact same steps at the exact same pace with the exact same look on your face, but the attitude you are conveying towards the trip in your recounting is frankly different. A sashay may be happy, or sassy, or even insolent, but you are always putting your best foot forward; there is no foot-dragging or aimlessness in a sashay, and yet no undue haste either – you could say that sashaying is not a way of moving as if you were being chased.

Not that everyone agrees on exactly what sashay does or does not convey. Oxford and Merriam-Webster agree that it can imply an ostentatious or conspicuous manner of moving, but while Oxford also specifies that it can also mean “To glide, walk, or travel, usually in a casual manner,” Merriam-Webster does not. But surely no one among us would object to sashaying blithely, and on the other hand few of us would not snicker at sashaying sullenly.

It’s a fun word, isn’t it, sashay? It sounds like the feet are sliding across the floor in slippers, perhaps. There really is something a bit deliciously sassy about it. I’m tempted to make a pun involving French sachet (as in tea bag, for instance) and “papa’s got a brand new bag,” but perhaps I should leave the French out of it.

Which is, in a way, how we got sashay in the first place: leaving the French behind. It’s formed by metathesis (sound-swapping) from a French word for a dance move, chassé. At least to the tongues of some people in America in the earlier 1800s, /sæʃeɪ/ was more sensible to say than /ʃæseɪ/ (let alone /ʃase/). And since this word was used not just in ballet but in folk dances as well, it did come up from time to time.

Do you know how to sashay, which is to say to do a chassé? I think you do, even if you don’t know that’s what it’s called. It’s just the step – usually to the side, though you can also do it en avant or en arrière – where one foot is always forward: each time you step with the leading foot, the trailing foot swings to join it but doesn’t pass, and then the leading foot leads on again. It’s a light, springing step, with no trace of traipse or trudge in it. The one foot chases the other, but any time it catches up to it, the other escapes again. Which is why it is called chassé – French for ‘chased’.

Well. If it must be chased, then it’s chased like the gingerbread man, light and fleet of foot, show-offish, and not at all traipsing or trapped. On any given day, I know I would rather sashay, if not literally then at least attitudinally. And if you won’t let me sashay, I will flounce away.

Thanks to June Casagrande for responding to my traipse WTN with “This right here is why I always sashay.”

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