April fool

Have you ever wondered about the origins of April Fools’ Day? If so you’re just like the reporter from the Associated Press who tracked down Joseph Boskin, a professor at Boston University, and asked the question. The professor said that it dated back to the days of the fourth century Roman Emperor Constantine, who like many rulers kept a retinue of fools to entertain his guests. Fools were more formally known as court jesters, comedians, musicians, storytellers and acrobats all rolled into one, and one of Constantine’s favourites, a jester named Kugel, once joked that he would make a better emperor than Constantine. So Constantine called his bluff and made him king for a day, on April 1.

The first thing the jester did as king was to institute mandatory merry making, and every year after the inhabitants of Rome practiced jokes and pranks to mark the anniversary. The custom spread throughout Europe and then the world.

The delightful thing about this story is that when the Associated Press published it, and had it picked up by newspapers all over the world, the professor told them he’d made it up. It was nought but an April Fools’ Day joke that he’d played on them. The folk at AP did not take it at all well.

And real the origin of the day remains a mystery to this day, although the connection of making merry to welcome the northern hemisphere spring probably has a bit to do with it.

Perth coat of armsThere have been some wonderfully creative April Fools’ Day pranks. An ABC current affairs program once ran a story about a disease spreading like wildfire through Australia’s spaghetti plantations, putting the national spaghetti harvest in grave doubt. It was run with vision of workers picking strands of spaghetti from trees. Another piece of ABC foolery was when an ornithologist was reported to have found a black swan, a cornerstone of the West Australian identity, that was white. The scientist told the viewers gravely that the white black swan could wipe out black swans forever.

The BBC’s most famous gotcha was when it announced that Big Ben was being converted to a digital display. Hamburger giant Burger King announced the creation of left-handed hamburgers and last year Ikea announced a pencil amnesty, saying that people who had walked out of the store with Ikea pencils could return them, no questions asked.

A friend once changed the language of my phone to Dutch and I had to find a Dutch speaker to get it back to English again. Inconvenient, but not as bad as has happened to Facebook users who have left their page open and come back to find it in Mandarin, Arabic or Japanese.

We’ve all heard about the junior asked to phone Mr Lion and given the number of the zoo, or the apprentice sent out to buy a tin of striped paint, but pity the poor kid in Scotland many years ago who was given an important looking letter and asked to hand-deliver it to an address and wait for a reply. The message inside advised the receiver that the exercise was an April Fools’ Day joke and asked that the kid be handed a new message to be taken to a third address. A fourth followed, and then a fifth until the kid finally twigged. The exercise is a classic example of another phrase without a recognised derivation; a fool’s errand.

Published March 2018