WOW ~ Word of the Week ~ April Fool

Last Friday was April 1st, the date known practically the world over as April Fool’s Day. The one day when pranksters can get away with various and sundry harassments and plagues. A celebration of the worldwide “Kick Me” sign.


Any one imposed on, or sent on a bootless errand, on the first of April; which day it is the custom among the lower people, children, and servants, by dropping empty papers carefully doubled up, sending persons on absurd messages, and such like contrivances, to impose on every one they can, and then to salute them with the title of April Fool. This is also practised in Scotland under the title of Hunting the Gowke.

James Gillray, "The April Fool Consigned to Infamy and Ridicule," 1801, Victoria and Albert Museum.

James Gillray, “The April Fool Consigned to Infamy and Ridicule,” 1801, Victoria and Albert Museum.

Whether its origins can truly be traced back to the Roman Festival of Hilaria or the Medieval Feast of Fools, the first known documented reference to an April Fool is by Geoffrey Chaucer, in the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” story of his Canterbury Tales in 1392. A wily fox plays on the vanity and conceit of the cock Chauntecleer, and nearly succeeds in having him for dinner.

When that the monthe in which the world bigan
That highte March, whan God first maked man,
Was complet, and passed were also
Syn March bigan thritty dayes and two

Much scholarly debate has centered around whether Chaucer actually meant April 1st or May 3rd; an argument can be made for both interpretations. For the purposes of celebrating all things April Fool, I choose to believe Chaucer went for the historical reference in his tale of torment of the easily gulled.

In 1508, French choirmaster and composter Eloy d’Amerval composed a poem containing a line that roughly translated means “Infamous Mackerel, of many man and many woman, April Fools.” To this day, people shout out “Poisson d’Avril!” Children do so while sticking a picture of a fish on each other’s backs.

maquereau infâme de main d’homme
et de mainte femme,
poisson d’avril.

In 1561, Flemish poet Eduard de Dene penned a poem entitled Refereyn Vp verzendekens dach/Twelck den eersten April te zyne plach. Easy for me to type. The closest meaning translates from late Medieval Dutch means to “Refrain on errand-day/which is the first of April.” In these verses, a nobleman makes his servants run fools’ errands on the first of April. These servants, however, are perhaps less fools and more loyal help: each stanza closes with a servant stating, “I am afraid … that you are trying to make me run a fool’s errand.”


The first British reference to April Fool’s Day appeared in 1686, when John Aubrey in Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme simply wrote of “Fooles Holy Day – We observe it on ye first of April.” My favorite documentation of British observance of April trickery comes in the form of invitations to the Annual Ceremony of the Washing of the Lions at the Tower of London. Never mind the fact that there were no lions kept there any longer. Nor were they ever washed.

The premier April Fool's Event - the annual washing of the Tower lions, 1856.

The premier April Fool’s Event – the annual washing of the Tower lions, 1856.

Want to know more about the history of April Fool’s? Check out these fascinating blog posts, and follow them while you’re there!

Origins of April Fools’ Day or France’s April Fish by Geri Walton
The Origin of April Fool’s Day by Regina Jeffers
All About April – Fools and Showers at Jane Austen’s London


Slang definition from 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. All other sources used are clickable links in the above text.