April fool

No one knows the origin of April Fool’s Day or the expression April fool. The expression appears in the seventeenth century, and the association of the month April with fools, especially those foolish because of love or lust, appears to have arisen on the European continent and was imported to Britain in the seventeenth century. 

In French, the phrase poisson d’avril means April fool. The earliest known use of the phrase is in a 1508 poem by French poet Eloy d’Amerval titled Le Livre de la Deablerie, lines 325–27:

Houlier, putier, macquereau infame
De maint homme et de mainte fame,
Poisson d’apvril, vien tost a moy!

(Debauched man, base man, infamous pimp
Of many men and many women,
Fish of April, soon to be mine!)

d’Amerval is punning here. Macquereau is slang for pimp, but it literally means mackerel. In the sixteenth century the phrase, perhaps because of this poem, came to mean a go-between or procurer. It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that poisson d’avril came to mean April fool.

The German phrase jemanden in den April schicken, meaning to play a trick on someone on April first, dates to 1645.

The earliest use of April fool in English is attested to a bit earlier than the German phrase, though, and appears in Edmund Lechmere’s 1629 A Disputation of the Church:

For my part, I was not willing at the sight of yours (which I espied by meere chaunce, and neuer sawe but once) to be made an Aprill foole, and therefore would not be so farre at your commaund.

William Congreve’s 1692 play The Old Batchelour contains this line referring to a love-struck man:

That’s one of Loves April-fools, is always upon some errand that’s to no purpose.

These early English uses are not specifically references to April first, but rather just an association of the month with foolish behavior, and in the latter case with love.

Joseph Addison writes in The Spectator in 1711:

An ingenious Tribe of Men [...] who are for making April Fools every Day in the Year. These Gentlemen are commonly distinguished by the name of Biters.

Addison’s wording suggests that by 1711 April first was already established as the day to play jokes on people, but the phrase April Fool’s Day isn’t attested until 1748.

It is mistakenly thought by some that the origin of the tradition dates to the introduction of the Gregorian Calendar in 1582 and the moving of the start of the year from March to the first of January. Those who continued to celebrate the new year on 1 April were marked as fools. But under the old Julian calendar the first of January was still the most common day to mark the start of the new year. 25 March was celebrated as the start of the new year in some countries, including Britain, but that would make it a March fool, not an April one. Another myth is that Chaucer makes reference to foolish tricks on April First in his Nun’s Priest’s Tale, but that reading is based on a transcription error.

Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, December 2008, s. v. April fool, n.

Middle French translation courtesy Adleen Crapo.

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