Today is April 1 and that means it’s April Fools’ Day, a custom that has more or less died out. I cannot remember the last time anyone played an April Fools’ joke on me. Most of today’s youngsters, enrapt in video games and the social networks, have never even heard of this ancient custom.
Most lexicographers agree April gets its name from the Latin ‘Aprilis’, from the verb ‘aprire’, meaning to open. April was given that name because that is when the earth opens to produce new fruits.
At first the name was written as ‘Aprille’, but when it was fashionable to borrow French words it became ‘Avril’, although some people called it ‘Averil’. At a later date it became April.
The start of April in Majorca can be lovely and sunny or cold and rainy. The same conditions apply to England. The lowest recorded temperature for April was -15C in Cumbria on April 2, 1917. The hottest was 29.4C in London on April 16, 1949.
And old weather lore adage says: “If it thunders on All Fools’ Day/ It brings good crops of corn and hay.” Thomas Tusser (1524-1580), the poet and agricultural writer best remembered for, “At Christmas play and make good cheer/For Christmas comes but once a year”, published a book called April Husbandry in which he wrote: “Sweet April showers/ Do spring May flowers.” In the song April Showers, Al Jolson sang, “Though April showers may come your way/They bring the flowers that bloom in May.”
Shakespeare wrote: “O! How this spring of love resembleth/The uncertain glory of an April day” (The Two Gentlemen of Verona) and “When well-apparelled April on the heel/Of limping Winter treads” (Romeo and Juliet).
One of the most beautiful and best known April quotes is from T.S.Eliot’s The Waste Land: “April is the cruellest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.”
As early as the 16th century an ‘April gentleman’ was a newly married man. April was a popular month for weddings in those days.
But in As You Like It, Shakespeare wrote: “Men are April when they woo, December when they wed.” The origin of April Fools’ Day is generally thought to be connected with the change Julian to Gregorian calendar in Catholic Europe in 1582.
Before the changeover, New Year’s celebrations were held on April 1. When New Year’s Day was changed to January 1, those who still celebrated it on April 1 were called April fools.
English people played jokes on each other to mark the day, but only until noon. April fooling in the late19th century was also called ‘the fooleries’. In The Case of the April Fools (1933), Christopher Bush wrote: “April the First, and what people are accustomed to call ‘the fooleries’, sir, actually expire at midday.”
Most cultures have a special day when playing practical jokes was not only allowed but openly encouraged. In Spain it is December 28 and it is known as the Día de los Inocentes, or the Day of the Innocent Ones. Jokes played on this day are known as ‘inocentadas’.
Even newspapers take part by publishing spoof stories and pictures with a local theme. I have always been very much against that. I think it is extremely bad policy for newspapers to fool their readers with phoney stories - even when it is meant as a joke.
There’s nothing funny about false stories even when the so-called joke stories are revealed next day. There will always be some readers who don’t see the next day’s paper and won’t realise the ‘inocentada’ items were just a joke.
In these days of fake news and Fox News, in which deliberate misinformation has gone global, some Spanish newspapers are beginning to realise the ‘inocentada’ isn’t a good idea.
Each department of sister paper Ultima Hora used to do an ‘inocentada’ but last year there was only one. I expect to see them dropping this tradition next December 28.
The hoax story is not a British tradition, but on April 1, 1957, Richard Dimbleby broadcast a piece about spaghetti growing on trees in Switzerland. It was shown on the BBC’s prestigious Panorama news and features programme.
Viewers saw the spaghetti being harvested and many believed what was happening. Some even phoned to ask how they could grow a spaghetti tree. They were advised to leave a stalk of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope it would put out roots. It wasn’t at all funny.
In Minorca, which was under British rule for almost 200 years, they still maintain many British traditions including sash windows and April Fools’ Day.
The French also celebrate April 1 but call it ‘Poisson d’Avril’, or April Fish. Part of the tradition is to pin a cardboard fish on the back of someone’s jacket or sweater. Napoleon I was given the nickname ‘Poisson d’Avril’ when he married Marie-Louise of Austria on April 1, 1810.
Some 50 years ago Palma schoolchildren used to stick pieces of paper on people’s backs, either fellow-pupils or adults, with the words “Tonto el que lo lea” (The fool is he who reads this). But there was no special day for doing this, as far as I know. It was just a schoolboy prank that came into vogue from time to time.
An April fool in Scotland is called an ‘April gowk’, or cuckoo. An English fool is a ‘gob’, ‘gawby’ or ‘noodle’. The words fool and folly came originally from the Latin ‘follis’, a large inflated bag.
In As You Like It, Shakespeare wrote: “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”
In Proverbs (18,7) it says: “A fool’s mouth is his destruction, and his lips are the snare of his soul.”
William Blake wrote: “The fool who persists in his folly will become wise.”
In early 16th century slang, a ‘foolmonger’ didn’t deal in fools: he was a an adventurer, a swindler or a betting man. But in the 19th century, when the foolmonger was a woman, she was also called a ‘fooltrap’ and the word meant a stylish harlot.
A jocular 18th century definition of a fishing rod was “a stick with a fool at one end and a maggot at the other.”
I know of four examples of rhyming slang but I’m sure there must be more. One dates from the 19th century and it is ‘April fools’ for tools. In public house rhyming slang around 1910, it was also used for stool.
Rhyming slang has always moved with the times, and by 1930 ‘April fools’ were football pools. ‘April flowers’, appropriately, are showers. And let’s hope we get plenty of them in the coming 30 days: we’ll need the water for the summer months.