Why Do We Call April 1 April Fools’ Day?
A day for fools? People around the world, and especially in North America and Europe, celebrate April 1 by playing practical jokes and trying to convince each other of outlandish false stories. But how did these customs evolve and why on the first day of April?
To answer that, we have to journey back in time to the reign of Constantine, a Roman emperor in the fourth century. The rulers of that period entertained themselves and their guests with “fools,” court jesters proficient in music, storytelling, acrobatics, or other skills. One day, a comedian joked that he would make a better king than Constantine. The emperor called his bluff and crowned the entertainer “king for a day.” The first thing the jester did was institute mandatory merry-making. Each year afterward on the anniversary of the jester’s kingship, the inhabitants of Rome remembered to have a little bit of fun with each other through jokes and pranks. The custom eventually spread throughout Europe and Northern America.
In 1983, the Associated Press printed this story. To research the origins of the day, they interviewed a Boston University professor with a keen sense of humor. They didn’t realize that the tale was pure nonsense. The history professor invented the story to fool them. It went to press before they realized that the story was nothing but a clever ruse. The truth is, nobody knows for a certainty when and where April Fools’ Day originated.
Let’s take a moment to examine some facts we do know.
Something about springtime seems to inspire lighthearted fun. Cultures around the world have festivals that appear to center on silliness. The ancient Romans held the Hilaria festivals for their god of vegetation. As part of a celebration called Holi, Hindus douse each other with colored powder. Jewish children dress in costumes, compete in beauty contests, and march in parades during their commemoration of Purim. Perhaps April Fools’ Day arose from an ancient spring festival or for no other reason that an excuse to have a good time.
Different Strokes for Different Folks
Not everyone observes April Fools’ Day in the same way. In the Western world, many pranks focus on tricking someone into believing something extraordinary. Burger King perpetrated one famous example. In 1998, they advertised a new menu item in USA Today. The full page ad introduced the Left-Handed Whopper. Burger King claimed that they designed the new sandwich by rotating the ingredients of the regular Whopper 180 degrees to accommodate lefties. The prank duped thousands of left- and right-handers who began ordering the sandwich corresponding to their dominant hand.
Other jokes are designed to cause mild trouble for the victim. For instance, Reader’s Digest published a list of seven practical jokes to play on coworkers who are lax about logging out of their Facebook accounts. The article included changing the colleague’s display language to one that doesn’t use the Roman alphabet (e.g., Japanese or Arabic) and accepting friend requests from strangers. Tricks like these provide a laugh as well as a life lesson.
France is particularly unique in the way they mark April 1. In French, the day is called Poisson d’Avril, or April Fish! Children spend the day trying to sneak a picture of a fish onto the back of their schoolmates. If the friend finds it, they yell, “Poisson d’Avril” in place of the “April Fool!” cry of people in the English-speaking world.
Another common ploy is to send someone on a “fool’s errand.” In other words, you ask him to search for an item that doesn’t exist or otherwise waste time trying to complete a useless task. According to Useless Daily, Scots subscribed to this tradition by requesting the gowk, or stooge, deliver a sealed message. The victim thinks that the message is important, but instead, it says: “Dinna [do not] laugh, dinna smile. Hunt the gowk another mile.” Mercilessly, the recipient furthers the fruitless errand by writing a reply that contains the same message to a third person. The merriment continues until the “gowk” realizes that he’s been had or the holiday ends
April Fool’s vs. April Fools’
If you write the name of the occasion incorrectly, you might receive your fair share of ribbing. Do yourself a favor and mind your apostrophe. The official name of this holiday is April Fools’ Day. Fools is plural, so the apostrophe for possession appears after the last S. However, if you search the two names on Google Ngram Viewer, you will discover that the singular variant is the most popular one! Some dictionaries acknowledge the variant, April Fool’s day. Another name for the same celebration is All Fools’ Day.
April 1 is the only public holiday accepted by the notoriously successful Finnish school system. Just kidding! April Fools’ Day is not an official public holiday in any country. Especially in the Western hemisphere, its popularity has grown since the nineteenth century, but no one seems to want to grant it formal recognition yet.
With so many countries participating, it seems that setting a day aside for a few jokes and hoaxes is a worldwide trend. From attaching paper fish to someone’s back to sending messengers on fool’s errands, every culture seems to have a different way of having a laugh for the event. Why is April 1 called April Fools’ Day? No one knows for sure, leaving the door wide open for you to make up a ridiculous story about it to dupe your family and friends.