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What Does “April Fools’ Day” Mean?

Image representing students learning about what April Fools' Day means

Have you seen any news stories in the last few days that seemed a bit strange? Perhaps your English-speaking friends were in an unusually childish mood on Saturday morning? That’s because, for people in the UK, Northern Europe, India, and many English speaking countries around the world, April 1st is “April Fools’ Day”, also called “All Fools’ Day.”

What Is a Fool?

In modern English, a “fool” is someone who behaves “foolishly”. That means that they behave in a way that is silly and immature, that they’ve done something stupid, or they believe things too easily that aren’t true.

April Fools’ Day focusses on the last of these meanings. Traditionally, until 12pm on the 1st April, the aim is to trick other people in some way – not in a nasty way, but as a joke. If you succeed, the other person becomes the “April Fool”

Where Does It Come From?

This is an old European tradition that goes back at least to the sixteenth century, possibly much earlier.

No one really knows for sure, but it probably began in France, where it was called “April Fish” (Poisson D’Avril). Many countries in Europe, including France, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands, still call April 1st “April Fish” Day and a popular game is to try and stick a paper fish to someone’s back without them noticing.

The Fool’s Errand

The oldest known joke played on April Fool’s Day, both in France and the UK, is the Fool’s Errand. This involves sending someone (the Fool) out to try to find something that doesn’t exist, or on a search that never ends – although, of course, they don’t know that!

In Scotland and Ireland, people traditionally played a specific version of this trick, called “Send the Fool Further” in Ireland and “Hunt the Gowk” in Scotland (a gowk is an old Scottish word for a cuckoo, a nickname for a foolish person).

The game was to ask someone to deliver a very important letter by hand. When they arrived, the person they gave it to would open the letter and see that it instructed them to send the “fool” on to someone else. They would tell the fool that before they could help, they would need to take the letter to a different person, again by hand. The joke was to see how many places you could send the fool (or “gowk”) before they realised what was happening!

While this is not as popular as it was in the past, “fool’s errand” is a common phrase in English. It means to spend ages trying to find something that doesn’t exist, or is impossible to find.

What Pranks Do People Play?

Many people play pranks on each other on April 1st, but some of the most popular jokes are run by media organisations. Many newspapers print a bizarre false story on April Fool’s Day and, of course, there will always be people who don’t realise straight away that it isn’t true.

In fact, one of the best April Fools’ Jokes of all time was in 1957, when the BBC produced a fake Panorama documentary about “spaghetti farming” in Switzerland. Panorama was such a serious programme that few people would have expected them to make a whole programme as a joke. Many people in the UK really believed that shots about the “spaghetti plantations” were real!

What was your favourite April Fools’ Day story this year? Did anyone try to trick you? Let us know in the comments section below.