The beginning of spring marks a time of lighthearted pranking around the world. April Fools’ Day (sometimes called All Fools’ Day) is observed and celebrated in various countries around the world every year on April 1. Practices include sending someone on a “fool’s errand,” looking for things that don’t exist; playing practical jokes on each other, also known as pranks or hoaxes; and trying to get people to believe ridiculous things. Hoax stories are also often found in the press and media on this day.
From a linguistic point of view, April Fool’s day is interesting in the sense that one might wonder if different cultures have always had days of foolishness around the start of April, and if so, what would such a day be termed in other languages?
April Fools’ Day, sometimes called All Fools’ Day, is one of the most light-hearted days of the year, but its origins are uncertain. Some see it as a celebration related to the turn of the seasons, while others believe it stems from the adoption of a new calendar. The earliest known historical reference to April Fools’ Day occurs in a Dutch poem published in 1561, which predates the adoption of the Gregorian calendar by some 21 years.
All Fool’s Day in British Folklore
British folklore links April Fool’s Day to the town of Gotham in Nottinghamshire. According to the legend, it was traditional in the 13th century for any road that the king placed his foot upon to become public property. So when Gotham’s citizens heard that King John planned to travel through their town, they refused him entry, not wishing to lose their main road. When the king heard this, he sent soldiers to the town. But when the soldiers arrived in Gotham, they found the town full of fools engaged in foolish activities such as drowning fish. As a result, the king declared the town too foolish to warrant punishment.
United Kingdom/English speaking countries
In the UK, an April fool joke is revealed by shouting “April fool!” at the recipient, who becomes the “April fool”. A study in the 1950s, by folklorists Iona and Peter Opie, found that in the UK, and in countries whose traditions derived from the UK, excluding Australia, the joking ceased at midday. A person playing a joke after midday is the “April fool” themselves.
Another theory as to the origins of April’s Fools’ Day is that it began in 1582, when France adopted the Gregorian calendar. Before this time, New Year’s Day fell on March 25 rather than January 1. Those who continued to celebrate the old New Year at the beginning of April were called “fools” by their early adopting contemporaries. Even before this transition, the New Year had long been associated with the term “fool.” In medieval France, the Feast of Fools fell on January 1. At this popular festival hijinks abounded: Christian ritual was burlesquely imitated, a fake pope was elected, and high and low officials swapped jobs for a day. Feast of Fools was likely modeled after the similarly themed pagan festival Saturnalia.
As this French tradition died out during the 16th century, a new one sprung up in the form of April Fools’ Day, or All Fools’ Day. Today in France, people who are fooled on April 1 are callede the Poisson d’Avril, which literally means “April Fish.” The customary prank involves pinning a paper fish, also called the poisson d’avril, to a friend’s back. This is not the only April Fools’ custom involving paper and backs.
In Italy, France, Belgium, and French-speaking areas of Switzerland and Canada, April 1 tradition is often known as “April fish” (poisson d’avril in French or pesce d’aprile in Italian). This includes attempting to attach a paper fish to the victim’s back without being noticed. Such fish feature prominently on many late 19th- to early 20th-century French April Fools’ Day postcards. What a fish has to do with April Fools’ Day is not exactly clear. Some believe that the fish is tied to Jesus Christ, who was often represented as a fish in early Christian times. Others say the fish is related to the zodiac sign of Pisces, which is represented by a fish, and falls near April. It’s interesting to point out that Napoleon earned the Poisson d’Avril monicker when he married Marie-Louise of Austria on April 1, 1810.
In Scotland, April Fools’ Day is called Gowkie Day—gowk in Scots being another name for the Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus), which is a common symbol of a foolish or stupid person. Celtic mythology in particular is rich in references to cuckoos, and the old Gowk’s day, originally held on April 13, was the day the cuckoo began to call, and when children were sent on a Gowk Hunt, a harmless prank involving pointless errands.
The word gowk derives from the Old Norse ‘gaukr’, a cuckoo, in Anglo-Saxon (Old English) ‘gouk’ and was replaced in the south and central England by the French loan word ‘coucou’ after the Norman Conquest. The Cuckoo family gets its English and scientific names from the call of the bird. The Scottish Gaelic names are Coi: Cuach: Cuachag (poetical name): Cuthag. The Welsh for cuckoo is cog.
The traditional prank is to ask someone to deliver a sealed message requesting help of some sort. In fact, the message reads “Dinna laugh, dinna smile. Hunt the gowk another mile”. The recipient, upon reading it, will explain he can only help if he first contacts another person, and sends the victim to this person with an identical message, with the same result.
Old Persian prank traditions
In Iran, jokes are played on the 13th day of the Persian new year (Nowruz), which falls on April 1 or April 2. This day, celebrated as far back as 536 BC, is called Sizdah Bedar and is the oldest prank-tradition in the world still alive today; this fact has led many to believe that April Fools’ Day has its origins in this tradition.
Poland’s prima aprilis
In Poland, prima aprilis (“1 April” in Latin) is a day full of jokes; various hoaxes are prepared by people, media (which sometimes cooperate to make the “information” more credible) and even public institutions. Serious activities are usually avoided. This conviction is so strong that the anti-Turkish alliance with Leopold I signed on April 1, 1683, was backdated to March 31
December 28, the equivalent day in Spain and Ibero-America, is also the Christian day of celebration of the “Day of the Holy Innocents”. The Christian celebration is a holiday in its own right, a religious one, but the tradition of pranks is not, though the latter is observed yearly. After somebody plays a joke or a prank on somebody else, the joker usually cries out, in some regions of Ibero-America: Inocente palomita que te dejaste engañar (“You innocent little dove that let yourself be fooled”). In Mexico, the phrase is ¡Inocente para siempre! which means “Innocent forever!”. In Argentina, the prankster says ¡Que la inocencia te valga!, which roughly translates as a piece of advice on not to be as gullible as the victim of the prank. In Spain, it is common to say just ¡Inocente! (which in Spanish can mean “Innocent!”, but also “Gullible!”). Nevertheless, on the Spanish island of Minorca, Dia d’enganyar (“Fooling day”) is celebrated on April 1 because Menorca was a British possession during part of the 18th century.
1 May is also celebrated in Sweden as an alternative joking day. When someone has been fooled in Sweden, to disclose that it was a joke, the fooler says the rhyme April april din dumma sill, jag kan lura dig vart jag vill (“April, April, you stupid herring, I can fool you to wherever I want”) for April 1 jokes, or Aj maj måne, jag kan lura dig till Skåne (“May May moon, I can fool you into Scania”) for May 1 jokes.
Both Danes and Swedes also celebrate April Fools’ Day (aprilsnar in Danish). Pranks on 1 May are much less frequent. Most Swedish and Danish news media outlets will publish exactly one false story on April 1; for newspapers this will typically be a first-page article but not the top headline.
Poems about April fool’s day and its origins:
The first of April, some do say
Is set apart for All Fools’ Day;
But why the people call it so
Nor I, nor they themselves, do know.
– Poor Robin’s Almanac 1760
April the first stands mark’d by custom’s rules,
A day for being, and for making fools: —
But, pray, what custom, or what rule supplies
A day for making, or for being — wise?
– Rev. Samuel Bishop, 1796
April 1, April Fools Day
No one goes hungry
All people are fed
The oceans are clean
Lake Erie is not dead
The Irish are not fighting
The Arabs love Jews
The swords are now plowshares
Now ain’t that good news?
The water is delicious
The air is so clear
On top of a mountain
You see to next year.
Couples stay married
Children are jewels
Sure got you going!
– Jean Wells Rogers
Written by Claus Skovbjerg
Former Communication Trainee in TermCoord
Edited by Cécile Mayeres