MUNDANE MYSTERIES: How Did April Fools’ Day Originate?

Whenever April 1st, or “April Fools’ Day” rolls around each year, as tricksters will pull out all the stops to play perfect pranks or hatch horrible hoaxes. Whether you love the occasion or dread it, you’ve probably wondered at one time or another how this weird tradition started. And the answer to that is…no one really knows. As a matter of fact, April Fools’ Day origins, themselves, have been questioned for centuries through myth & legend.

Some historians say the origins of April Fools’ Day go all the way back to Noah, when he sent out a dove before the flood was over. Others say it has its roots in certain aspects of the Roman Saturnalia festival. But probably the most popular hypothesis traces April Fools’ Day back to a French term: “poisson d’avril”, literally meaning “fish of April” (and figuratively meaning “April Fools”).

“Poisson d’avril” didn’t originally mean “an April Fool”, however. Starting in the 1400s, “poisson d’avril” meant “a go-between”, largely due to there being two different meanings for another French word, “maquereau”, which had come to the French language via the Dutch language. One of those meanings was “makreel” (meaning “mackerel” [the fish]) while the other was “makelaar” (meaning “broker”). So, to help alleviate confusion, another name for the fish form eventually developed: “poisson d’avril”, since it was “a fish easily caught by deception, singly, as well as in great shoals, at this season of the year”.

As the years went on, “poisson d’avril” came to mean a person who was the go-between for matchmaking. Then, as the theories go, people began playing pranks on those go-betweens by sending them on increasingly ridiculous missions in the name of love. And, according to The Museum of Hoaxes, the first unambiguous reference to April Fools’ Day came in the form of a 1561 Flemish story about a nobleman who sent one of his servants on ridiculous errands to prepare for a wedding feast. Even today, many Flemish speakers call April 1“verzenderkesdag”, which translates to “errand day”.

Whatever you call April 1st, the very nature of the “holiday” means you should take most of what you’re told with a grain of salt. (Though, that’s probably a good idea every other day of the year, as well.)

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