Whence proceeds the custom of making April Fools?” This was the question asked of the wonderfully-entitled publication ‘British Apollo or Curious Amusements for the Ingenious’ in 1708.
In British folklore, April Fool’s Day is associated with Gotham in Nottinghamshire and an event from the 13th century. According to legend, King John decided to ‘acquire’ some of the land of Gotham for a hunting lodge. Naturally this was not popular with the townsfolk and so they decided on a cunning plan to dissuade the king. They decided to ‘play the fool’ so when the king’s men arrived in the town, they found the townspeople doing all sorts of crazy things such as trying to drown fish. This was enough for the king’s men to counsel the king to choose somewhere else for his lodge, as Gotham was obviously full of madmen. Ever since then, according to legend, April Fool’s Day has commemorated their trickery.
The idea of April Fools’ Day spread rapidly throughout Britain during the 18th century. It was particularly popular in Scotland where it became a two-day event, starting with ‘hunting the gowk’, gowk meaning ‘cuckoo’ or ‘fool’. It entailed sending folk on phony errands, often carrying messages reading, “Dinna laugh, dinna smile. Hunt the gowk another mile.” The recipient would send the messenger on to another person with the same message, and so on. This was followed by Tailie Day, which rather bizarrely involved playing pranks on people’s bottoms, such as attaching pretend tails or ‘kick me’ notes to them.
Nowadays when someone has an April Fool trick played on them, the prankster will generally shout “April Fool!”. Pranks can be quite simple, such as sending people on wild goose chases or quite complicated, as some of the following examples illustrate.
Some people may remember a famous April Fool prank from 1957, when the BBC program ‘Horizon’ apparently showed Swiss farmers picking spaghetti from spaghetti trees. The BBC received so many enquiries from viewers asking where they could buy a spaghetti plant that they had to own up to the hoax the following day!
The BBC do enjoy a good prank and in 1965 they were at it again, with another famous hoax: smell-o-vision. A trial was announced whereby smells were to be broadcast along with the regular TV shows. Apparently many viewers declared the trial a great success!
Then in 2008 the pranksters at the BBC reported that during filming for their natural history series ‘Miracles of Evolution’ they had captured footage of flying penguins. Presenter Terry Jones of Monty Python fame was shown walking with the penguins in Antarctica, and then following their flight to the Amazon rainforest where the penguins would “spend the winter basking in the tropical sun.” The video went viral on the internet.
The Guardian newspaper got in on the act on 1st April 1977 with a seven-page supplement on the entirely fictitious island nation of San Serriffe.
And in this new digital world, let’s not forget the internet giant Google with its annual April Fool’s Day jokes!