More commonly known as April Fools’ Day, this is celebrated on April 1st each year and has been celebrated for several centuries by many different cultures, though its exact origins remain a mystery. Traditions include playing hoaxes or practical jokes on others, often ending the event by calling out “April Fool!” to the recipient so they realise they’ve been caught out by the prank. Whilst its exact history is shrouded in mystery, the embrace of April Fools’ Day jokes by the media and major brands has ensured the unofficial holiday’s long life. Mass media can be involved in these pranks, which may then be revealed as such on the day following. The day itself is not a public holiday in any country except Odessa in the Ukraine, where the first of April is an official city holiday. The custom of setting aside a day for playing harmless pranks upon one’s neighbour has become a relatively common one in the world and a disputed association between 1 April and foolishness is in Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘The Canterbury Tales (1392) as in the ’Nun’s Priest’s Tale’, where a vain person is tricked by a fox with the words ‘Since March began thirty days and two’, i.e. 32 days since March began, which is April 1st. In 1508, French poet Eloy d’Amerval referred to a ‘poisson d’avril’, possibly the first reference to the celebration in France. Prompted by the Protestant Reformation, the Ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church issued condemnations of what it defined to be heresies committed by proponents of Protestantism and also issued key statements and clarifications of the Church’s doctrine and teachings, including scriptures, the Biblical canon, sacred tradition, original sin, the sacraments, Mass and the veneration of saints. The Council met for twenty-five sessions between 13 December 1545 and 4 December 1563 and Pope Paul III, who convoked, or called together the Council, oversaw the first eight sessions during 1545 and 1547, whilst the twelfth to sixteenth sessions, held between 1551 and 1552, were overseen by Pope Julius III and the final seventeenth to twenty-fifth sessions by Pope Pius IV between 1562 and 1563. As a result, the use of January 1st as New Year’s Day was not adopted officially until 1564 by the Edict of Roussillon, when France switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. In the Julian Calendar, like the Hindu calendar, the new year began with the spring equinox around April 1st. So people who were slow to get the news of this change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar or simply failed to realise the change but continued to celebrate the start of the new year during the last week of March and into April became the butt of jokes and hoaxes and were therefore called “April fools.” These pranks included having paper fish placed on their backs and being referred to as “poisson d’avril” (April fish), said to symbolise a young, easily caught fish or a gullible person. In 1686, a writer named John Aubrey referred to the celebration as ‘Fooles holy day’, the first British reference. On 1 April 1698, several people were tricked into going to the Tower of London to “see the Lions washed”.
A study in the 1950s by two folklorists found that in the UK and in countries whose traditions derived from here, the joking ceased at midday and this continues to be the practice, with the custom ceasing at noon, after which time it is no longer acceptable to play pranks. Thus a person playing a prank after midday is considered to be the ‘April fool’ themselves. Meanwhile in Scotland, April Fools’ Day was originally called ‘Huntigowk Day’. The name is actually a corruption of ‘hunt the gowk’, this being Scottish for a cuckoo or a foolish person. Alternative terms in Gaelic would be ‘Là na Gocaireachd’, ‘gowking day’, or ‘Là Ruith na Cuthaige’, ‘the day of running the cuckoo’. The traditional prank is to ask someone to deliver a sealed message that supposedly requests 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 they can only help if they first contact another person, and they send the victim to this next person with an identical message, with the same result. In England a ‘fool’ is known by a few different names around the country, including ‘noodle’, ‘gob’, ‘gobby’ or ‘noddy’.
On April Fools’ Day 1980, the BBC announced the Big Ben’s clock face was going digital and whoever got in touch first could win the clock hands. Over in Ireland, it was traditional to entrust a victim with an “important letter” to be given to a named person. That person would read the letter, then ask the victim to take it to someone else, and so on. The letter when opened contained the words “send the fool further”. A day of pranks is also a centuries-long tradition in Poland, signified by ‘prima aprilis’, this being ‘First April’ in Latin. It is a day when many pranks are played and hoaxes, sometimes very sophisticated, are prepared by people as well as the media (which often cooperate to make the ‘information’ more credible) and even public institutions. Serious activities are usually avoided, and generally every word said on April 1st could be untrue. The conviction for this is so strong that the Polish anti-Turkish alliance with Leopold I which was signed on 1 April 1683, was backdated to 31 March. But for some in Poland ‘prima aprilis’ also ends at noon of 1 April and such jokes after that hour are considered inappropriate and not classy. Over in Nordic countries Danes, Finns, Icelanders, Norwegians and Swedes celebrate April Fools’ Day. It is ‘aprilsnar’ in Danish, ‘aprillipäivä’ in Finnish and ‘aprilskämt’ in Swedish. In these countries, most news media outlets will publish exactly one false story on 1 April and for newspapers this will typically be a first-page article but not the top headline. In Italy, France, Belgium and the French-speaking areas of Switzerland and Canada, the April 1st tradition is similarly known as April fish, being ‘poisson d’avril’ in French, ‘April vis’ in Dutch and ‘pesce d’aprile’ in Italian. Possible pranks include attempting to attach a paper fish to the victim’s back without being noticed. This fish feature is prominently present on many late 19th- to early 20th-century French April Fools’ Day postcards. Many newspapers also spread a false story on April Fish Day, and a subtle reference to a fish is sometimes given as a clue to the fact that it is an April Fools’ prank. In Germany, as in the UK an April Fool prank is sometimes later revealed by shouting “April fool!” at the recipient, who becomes the April fool but over in the Ukraine, April Fools’ Day is widely celebrated in Odessa and has the special local name ‘Humorina’. It seems that this holiday arose in 1973 and an April Fool prank is revealed by saying “Pervoye Aprelya, nikomu ne veryu”, which means “April the First, I trust nobody”, to the recipient. The festival includes a large parade in the city centre, free concerts, street fairs and performances. Festival participants dress up in a variety of costumes and walk around the city fooling around and pranking passersby. One of the traditions on April Fools’ Day is to dress up the main city monument in funny clothes. Humorina even has its own logo, a cheerful sailor in a lifebelt and whose author was the artist Arkady Tsykun. During the festival, special souvenirs bearing the logo are printed and sold everywhere. Quite why or how this began I cannot determine but since 2010, April Fools’ Day celebrations include an International Clown Festival and both are celebrated as one. In 2019, the festival was dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the Odessa Film Studio and all events were held with an emphasis on cinema.
As well as people playing pranks on one another on April Fools’ Day, elaborate pranks have appeared on radio and television stations, newspapers, and websites as well as those performed by large corporations. In one famous prank in 1957, the BBC broadcast a film in their ‘Panorama’ current affairs series purporting to show Swiss farmers picking freshly-grown spaghetti, in what they called the Swiss spaghetti harvest. The BBC was soon flooded with requests to purchase a spaghetti plant, forcing them to declare the film a hoax on the news the next day. With the advent of the Internet and readily available global news services, April Fools’ pranks can catch and embarrass a wider audience than ever before. But the practice of April Fool pranks and hoaxes is somewhat controversial. The mixed opinions of critics are epitomised in the reception to the 1957 BBC ’spaghetti tree hoax’ and newspapers were later split over whether it was a great joke or a terrible hoax on the public. The positive view is that April Fools’ can be good for one’s health because it encourages ‘jokes, hoaxes, pranks, and belly laughs’ and brings all the benefits of laughter including stress relief and reducing strain on the heart. There are many ‘best of’ April Fools’ Day lists that are compiled in order to showcase the best examples of how the day is celebrated and various April Fools’ campaigns have been praised for their innovation, creativity, writing, and general effort. However, the negative view describes April Fools’ hoaxes as ‘creepy and manipulative, rude and a little bit nasty’, as well as based on ‘Schadenfreude’, the experience of pleasure, joy, or self-satisfaction that comes from learning of or witnessing the troubles, failures, or humiliation of another, as well as deceit. When genuine news or a genuine important order or warning is issued on April Fools’ Day, there is risk that it will be misinterpreted as a joke and ignored, for example when Google (known to play elaborate April Fools’ Day hoaxes) announced, in 2004, their launch of Gmail with one gigabyte inboxes, an era when competing webmail services offered four megabytes or less, many dismissed it as an outright joke. On the other hand, sometimes stories intended as jokes are taken seriously. So either way, there can be adverse effects such as confusion, misinformation, wasted resources (especially when the hoax concerns people in danger) and even legal or commercial consequences. In Thailand, the police even warned ahead of the April Fools’ in 2021 that posting or sharing fake news online could lead to maximum of five years imprisonment. Other examples of genuine news on April 1st mistaken as a hoax included warnings about the Aleutian Island earthquake’s tsunami in Hawaii and Alaska in 1946 that killed 165 people, news on April 1st that a comedian by the name of Mitch Hedberg had died on 29 March 2005, an announcement that a long running USA soap opera called ‘Guiding Light’ was being cancelled in 2009 or that a USA basketball player named Isaiah Thomas had been declared for the NBA draft in 2011, probably because of his age. As well as April 1st being recognised as April Fools’ Day, there are a few other, recognisable days, notably on the first of each month when, in English-speaking countries (mainly Britain, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) it is a custom to say “a pinch and a punch for the first of the month” or a similar alternative, but this is typically said by children. In some places the victim might respond with “a flick and a kick for being so quick”, but that I haven’t heard said for many a long year. I do still say (or share in text messages etc) “White rabbits” as this is meant to bring good luck and to prevent the recipient saying ‘pinch, punch, first of the month’ to you! I do wonder sometimes how one of my older brothers managed at school on this particular day though, as April 1st is his birthday – perhaps he managed to keep it quiet somehow…
There are so many words in English that seem to have fallen out of use and I am starting to find a few. We know that when a word is used to emphasise or lay emphasis on a noun, it is called an emphatic adjective. Examples are found in “The very idea of living on the moon is impractical” and “They are the only people who helped me, where ‘very’ and only’ emphasise. But there are also ‘phatic’ expressions and these are ones denoting or relating to language used for general purposes of social interaction, rather than to convey information or ask questions. Utterances such as “hello, how are you?” and “nice morning, isn’t it?” are examples of phatic expressions.
Click: Return to top of page or Index page