Posted by: Brad Nixon | April 1, 2020

Etymology for April 1st: Fool

Happy April Fools Day, observed in many countries and cultures under a variety of names and variations on the theme of playing pranks and practical jokes. There are innumerable interesting words and phrases for the day.

Accounts of the origins of the many customs on the first of April vary widely, and I’m certainly no authority. You may find it interesting to browse online to read about some of them.

That Word: “Fool”

Instead, I’ll focus more narrowly: on that word “fool.”

Its basic form has a straightforward and typical history for many English words. But its meaning took an interesting turn along the way to give us our current sense of the word in English.

Middle English

The first recorded instance of the word in English appeared in a chronicle of tales from 1275. It’s all but certain the word was being spoken well before then, but we’re at the mercy of whatever documents survived the centuries.

It’s an old form of our language, but you can get at least most of it (I’ve replaced one archaic letter — a thorn, ᚦ — for our “th):”

Cnight, thou art mochel fol. “Knight, you are much of a fool.”

(“Cnight” had two syllables: ka-NICHT; “mochel” goes well back into Old English in a variety of forms, but still recognizable as our word, “much.”)

Those French, Again

Prior to that, the period following 1066 (and all that) was a time of rapid adoption of words from Old French. Our fol was an Old French fōl, still extant in modern French fou.

Then, Back to Latin. Here Comes the Twist

Those world-champion originators of vocabulary, the Romans, had a word follem or follis (depending on case). It meant a bellows.

Late in the run of Latin as a spoken language, follis developed a slang attribution. It was used as a metaphor for a blowhard, a windbag: a bellows.

Thus, a fool. Which is how we use the word today.

How to mark the first of April where you live? What word or phrase describes it in your language? Please leave a comment. No foolin’.

© Brad Nixon 2020. Etymology courtesy The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th edition, Houghton Mifflin, New York 2000; Compact Edition of the Oxford Dictionary of English, Oxford University, 1971.


Responses

  1. Here’s a question for both you and the Counselor — how did the English dessert come to be known as raspberry fool? I think it should be the official sweet of April Fool’s Day!

    Liked by 1 person

    • We’re discussing. NOT looking up. Give us a bit here. She has us on the track.

      Liked by 1 person

    • We surrender on this one. The possible derivation for things like food names are myriad, and one can only guess.
      The Counselor — the more knowledgable chef — had to explain to me what raspberry fool is, in the first place.
      For me, I’ll take a stab, and have it related to the Old English sense of the word “fol,” which is our current word, “full.” So, perhaps it’s “full” of raspberries. Any excuse to trot out a bit of Old English vocabulary.
      We await enlightenment from you, rather than simply trying to look it up.
      Thanks for the puzzle.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I don’t have a clue! I’ll consult some of my English blogging friends, and see what they have to say.

        Liked by 1 person

      • You had us. We were CERTAIN you already knew the answer! Sorry, we misunderstood the assignment. We’ll look, too. Good words to you, as Mr. Ciardi once said.

        Like

      • Grinning, here. No, your post just raised the dessert in my mind, and I was sure you would know!

        By the by, I just read this article. If you’re given to using Zoom for videoconferencing, it’s worth a read.

        Liked by 1 person

      • The Counselor just consulted Wikipedia under “fruit fool,” and it offers several possible etymologies.

        Like

      • A friend referred me to this lovely article, which provides one etymology and several approaches to making a fool. It does occur to me that there’s a culinary pun lurking in the phrase “a foolish dessert.”

        Liked by 1 person

      • Sorry, I missed approving this one. Thank you. The Counselor’s a big rhubarb fan, and I like it to. Worthwhile potential etymology there, too, although there are plenty of competitors, per Wikipedia.

        Like

  2. Aha, thank you. Learned something new today.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re most welcome. Thanks for visiting.

      Like


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