TRUE STORIES — You could have fooled me

J.T. Knoll
J.T. Knoll

As April Fools’ Day came and went this week I found myself ruminating about the different ways the term "fool" can be used — from a method to describe a silly person who is easily deceived … to one who is quite crafty, intelligent and deceptive.

In his plays, Shakespeare used fools — usually clever peasants or commoners — to speak truth to the other characters and the audience as well as employ their wit to outdo people of higher social standing.

Shakespeare’s fool rejected all appearances, of law, justice, and moral order — believing the only true madness is to deceive oneself into the belief that the world is rational: “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”

This got me interested in searching around on the internet for how the custom of playing April Fools’ Day pranks and hoaxes came about. The short answer, I discovered, is that nobody knows for sure.

Some historians speculate that April Fools’ Day dates back to 1582, when Pope Gregory XIII switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian one for all of Christendom. People who were slow to recognize that the new year had moved to January 1st, and continued to celebrate it the last week of March through April 1st, became the butt of jokes and hoaxes.

Another story placed the origin in the reign of Emperor Constantine. According to this story, a group of fools, or jesters, convinced Constantine to make one of them “king for a day.” Constantine obliged, and one of the jesters, named “Kugel,” was appointed to the position. He decreed that it would be a day of jollity, and thus created what came to be called April Fools’ Day.

Turned out the Constantine story was itself an April Fools’ Day prank, pulled by Boston University professor, Joseph Boskin, on Associated Press reporter Fred Bayles in 1983. Bayles reported the story, and the AP ran it, only to retract it some days later.

The first certain reference to April Fools’ Day comes from a 1561 Flemish poem by Eduard De Dene, in which a nobleman sends his servant on crazy, fruitless errands. The servant eventually recognizes that he is being sent on “fool’s errands” because it’s April 1st.

Eduard de Dene’s trick, in which someone is assigned an errand to find a nonexistent object or person, was still a popular April Fools’ joke over 450 years later. A 1902 article in the Akron Daily Democrat explained: “One of the most popular amusements on April 1st is the sending of persons on fruitless errands — to the bookstores for a copy of the 'History of Eve’s Grandmother,' or to the pharmacy for ‘pigeon’s milk’.”

“Fool’s errands” are still used as hazing rituals for new workers on job sites these days; like sending a new employee at Walmart to the sporting goods department to check how much shoreline is left in stock. I’ve experienced this myself. As a tenderfoot laborer for Oheme Bros. Masonry when I was in college, one of the bricklayers asked me to go to the job foreman and ask him for a “replacement bubble for his level.”

April Fools’ Day was popular throughout Great Britain during the 18th century. In Scotland, the tradition became “hunting the gowk,” a process in which people were sent on phony errands. Gowk means cuckoo bird, a symbol for fool. (In these parts we called this “snipe hunting.”)

Sometimes whole countries have gotten pranked.

• On April 1, 1957, the BBC TV show “Panorama” ran a segment about the Swiss spaghetti harvest, enjoying a “bumper year” thanks to mild weather and the elimination of the spaghetti weevil.

• In 1962, the Swedish national television network put on a technical expert who told the public that its black-and-white broadcasts could be made color by simply viewing through nylon stockings.

• In 2015, Cottonelle tweeted that it was introducing left-handed toilet paper for all those southpaws out there. “It cleans just like right-handed toilet paper, only now it’s made just for you lefties!”

Here in America, it was once a tradition for pupils to pull April Fools’ Day pranks on their teachers. A common one was to get there early and lock the teacher out of the school altogether. Dr. Samuel Lathan, who was born in 1842 in rural South Carolina, recalled his own school days, saying that the pupils would get inside the school and bar the teacher out.

“The teacher who didn’t act on the principle that discretion is the better part of valor," Lathan recalled, “generally got the worst of it. The ones who did, laughingly announced there would be no school that day, and left.”

J.T. Knoll is a writer, speaker and eulogist. He also operates Knoll Training & Consulting in Pittsburg. He can be reached at 620-704-1309 or jtknoll@swbell.net.