• Category Archives Just for Laughs
  • Drowning Fish, Flying Penguins and April Fools

    “Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups.”—George Carlin


    April Fool virus alert

    Appropriately enough, the origin of April Fools Day (or April Fool’s or April Fools’ – it sort of depends on the context) is thoroughly confused and the source of much debate, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Suffice it to say that I won’t be putting forth any conclusive evidence, or even firmly held opinions, about which theory may be correct. If there’s any holiday whose genesis should be shrouded in mystery and embraced as such, it’s this one.

    What is known is that by the 17th century, the custom of playing pranks on April 1 was a well-established tradition all across Europe. It is also known that its origin dates back much further than this. Things didn’t become widespread customs overnight back then, and written records from the time make it clear that this ritual had been going on for quite some time. The most commonly cited story of how this day of socially acceptable foolishness began is also most likely false, naturally. It generally goes something like this.

    The Julian calendar was established by Julius Caesar in 46 BCE and designated January 1 as the start of the new year. However, as Christianity spread across Europe, people wanted a date for the beginning of the year that was more aligned to their religion, such as Christmas or Easter. For some reason, Easter won out, even though it was a much worse choice. The day on which Easter falls changes yearly based on its being observed on the Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox (and therefore also connected to pagan rituals – gasp of horror!). This makes it an extremely unstable day for designating the beginning of anything, so some countries resolved this problem by having the new year start on March 25, although January 1 was still designated as the beginning of the new year by some governments, making the whole situation an unregulated mess.

    In 1583, Pope Gregory stepped in and made January 1 the official first day of the year for the Catholic Church (hence the name of the Gregorian calendar), and most Christian countries fell in line fairly quickly. So the story goes that those who stuck to the old system became the objects of ridicule, or April Fools. The problem here is easy enough to spot. April 1 was not the beginning of the year for anyone, so why weren’t they called March 25 fools? The rationalization that it doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily just doesn’t cut it.

    Mary holding a positive home pregnancy testWhat has been suggested as a possible explanation for this discrepancy is that it had something to do with the Feast of Annunciation, an eight day celebration that began on March 25 and ended on April 1. The first day of Annunciation was March 25 because it’s exactly nine months before Christmas, so that’s the day they figured that God boinked Mary, which could explain why the Old Testament God was so grumpy while the New Testament God was all love and forgiveness. In any case, you gotta hand it to the Big Guy. A pregnant virgin might be the ultimate April Fools joke, even if it was a few days early. He’s God. He can do that.

    So mystery solved, right? Nope, because possibly the first written reference to April Fools Day came from Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale, c. 1392, nearly 200 years before all of the aforementioned calendrical controversy. The story has to do with a cocky rooster (pun thoroughly intended) that got tricked by a fox and was nearly eaten as a result. The possible April Fools connection is the date given on which the story begins. The passage in question reads:

    When that the monthe in which the world bigan

    That highte March, whan God first maked man

    Was complet, and passed were also

    Syn March bigan thritty days and two

    So the story begins 32 days after the beginning of March, which is April 1, except that it also says that March was “complet,” and 32 days after the end of March would put the date at May 2, although April Fools is still in the mix since the day March is officially “complet” is April 1.

    Most English lit scholars prefer the second interpretation, and while I’m sure that these guys know a lot more about Chaucer than I do, I get the distinct impression that these stuffed shirts just don’t want one of their literary heroes associated with April Fools for some reason. This seems a bit strange to me since Chaucer was the Lenny Bruce (or Penthouse Forum) of his time. They sometimes go so far as to change the last line to “Syn March was gon,” which seems pretty presumptuous to me. One medieval historian has put forth the theory that Chaucer was being deliberately ambiguous about the date to parody the philosophers of his time. A lot of those guys do like to make things as confusing as possible in order to prove to themselves how much smarter than everyone else they are. (I had a lit professor who referred to this as physics envy.) Good for Chaucer if he was putting those smug bastards in their place. On the other hand, I’m just whimsical enough to consider that this ambiguity was Chaucer’s April Fools prank on the literary scholars of the future. If so, mission accomplished.

    And just to belabor the point, why phrase this in such a way that April 1 is implicated no matter how it is interpreted? It seems to me that Chaucer was going out of his way to make sure that April Fools was associated with his story of the cock that got fooled. If not, why bother mentioning a specific date at all, and why be so enigmatic about it? Just further proof that literary scholars really don’t understand writers at all.

    Poisson d'Avril cardSo if people were already playing April Fools jokes back in the 1300s, then the whole calendar change theory loses a lot of its traction. But as always, the French come to the rescue…sort of. We do know that when the French officially changed their calendar to make January 1 the start of the year in 1564, those who stubbornly refused to go along were pranked by having a paper fish surreptitiously attached to their backs, and were referred to as Poisson d’Avril (April Fish). The significance of the fish is unclear, although it may have had to do with how easy it was to catch young fish in the spring, but April Fish is still the French term for an April Fool, and this practice is the first incontrovertible example of people being goofed on for being fools in April. However, this still doesn’t account for Chaucer and a few other earlier references to the day of fools.

    There are several other theories for the origin of April Fools, but they’re even more farfetched than any and all of the above. It’s sort of like the hamburger. Every city or country that can conceivably take credit for its creation, no matter how tenuous their claim might be, does so. My favorite of these involves the town of Gotham in central England, not to be confused with Gotham City, which is where Batman lives. Legend has it that back in the 13th century, any road that the king walked on became a public road. When the citizens of Gotham heard that King John was planning to pass through their town, they were afraid of losing control of their main road and refused him entry. When John sent his soldiers into town to straighten these people out on a few things, they reported back to him that they had discovered the people there engaged in activities such as trying to drown fish and catch birds in topless cages. Of course it was all a trick to fool the king into thinking that they were too simple-minded to be held accountable for their actions, but it allegedly worked. The king was convinced that these people were too stupid to be punished. This supposedly took place on April 1, and so April Fools Day was born…except that it wasn’t because this never really happened. He actually had the entire population of the town impaled. Just kidding. #WWVD

    One of the most vague but widely accepted theories for the beginning of this tradition is that it was an offshoot from one of the various renewal festivals celebrated all across Europe at the time, as well as in other parts of the world. These festivals commemorate the end of winter and the “rebirth” of the world with the arrival of spring. This doesn’t make for a particularly amusing explanation, but it may be as close to the truth as anything.

    One of the earliest forms of pranks consisted of sending the mark on what has come be known as a “fool’s errand.” Traditionally, a person would be given a sealed message that was supposedly a plea for help regarding some dire situation. Actually, the note explained to the recipient that it was all a joke and to send the messenger to yet another person who would be better able to render assistance. In theory, the poor courier could be kept running around town all morning.* Two of the better, more recent gags were both pulled off by the BBC. In 1957, they ran a story about CGI flying penguinsthe Swiss spaghetti harvest, which showed farmers picking strands of pasta from spaghetti trees. By the next day, they had received so many inquiries from people wanting to know where they could get a spaghetti plant that they were forced to issue a statement admitting that it had been a joke. Then in 2008, with the aid of computer animation, they were able to produce convincing images for a fake movie trailer documenting the migration of flying penguins from Antarctica to the rainforests of South America.

    And finally, I have to give an honorable mention to Burger King, who took out a full-page ad in the April 1, 1998 edition of USA Today† to introduce their new left-handed Whopper. Over the next several days, thousands of people turned out to sample the new sandwich, while many others specified that they wanted the standard right-handed variety. I don’t know if any of them did this, but it would have been even more hilarious if some of the restaurants decided to humor their patrons by announcing “I need two rights and one left Whopper to go,” and then marked them with an “L” or “R” so that people could tell them apart. That’s what I would have done, but I’m an a-hole.


    *I say “all morning” instead of “all day” because it was customary at the time for pranks to only be pulled before noon. After that, the prankster was considered to be the fool for not knowing the rules.

    †Whether their decision to run the ad in USA Today had anything to do with this publication’s nickname McPaper is unknown.

    and all the devils are here



  • A Baker’s Dozen of Tridecaphobics

    “For 13 to be unlucky would require there to be some kind of cosmic intelligence that counts things that humans count and that also makes certain things happen on certain dates or in certain places according to whether the number 13 is involved or not.”—Douglas Hofstadter



    Okay, technically, the fear of the number 13 is called triskaidekaphobia, but I find this term to be needlessly complicated, confusing and pretentious, not to mention hard to spell. I strongly suspect that Isador Coriat, the man who came up with this name, suffered from an inferiority complex because no one takes Moroccan psychiatrists seriously, and so he coined this unnecessarily intimidating term to compensate for his low self-esteem at the expense of sesquipedalophobics everywhere. Also, I bet he was really short.

    In any case, tridecaphobia is every bit as real and valid a word, and until the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders designates a specific terminology for this phobia, it’s the one I’m going with.The more specific fear of Friday the 13th in particular is called paraskevidekatriaphobia. I’d simplify that one by converting it from Greek to Latin as well, but it doesn’t really help that much. Besides, veneristridecaphobia sounds like the fear of some weird social disease.

    Both 13 and Friday have been considered unlucky in much of the Western world for centuries, but the combination of the two into one ominous double whammy didn’t happen until sometime in the 19th century. The first known mention of these two joining forces was in the biography of composer Gioachino Rossini, which reported that he considered both of these things to be unlucky, and then went on to die on Friday the 13th of November in 1868, probably due to acute hypochondria.

    Some trace 13’s association with the sinister back to the Last Supper, with Judas being dinner guest 13. Some would argue that we have no idea in what order each of the guests arrived, but I would counter with the argument that if you were to rank your favorite Last Supper participants in order of popularity, Jesus would come in first by a comfortable margin, while Judas would finish a distant last place…except among Satanists. Then it’s probably the other way around.

    Some also connect Jesus with the unlucky reputation of Friday since that’s the day he was allegedly crucified. Makes as much sense as anything I suppose. However, if this is true, then he must have risen from the dead on Monday. I know that some of you aren’t going to like this, but if he rose from the grave after three days, then he was either crucified on Thursday or came back on Monday. I’ve read some of the theological rationalizations of this discrepancy, and they’re all understandably hilarious. There is just no intelligent argument to be made for Sunday being three days after Friday.

    Another possible dinner-party-related origin for the evils of the number 13 comes to us from Norse mythology. The infamous mischief-maker Loki was the 13th (and some say uninvited) guest at a banquet held in Valhalla, where he proceeded to stir up trouble, as Loki was wont to do. According to some versions of the story, it was here that he arranged the murder of the god Balder by tricking his blind (or optophobic?) brother Hod into inadvertently killing him. Loki was then once again the 13th guest to arrive at the funeral, which is just bad form. You can’t arrange for a guy to accidentally kill his own brother and then show up at the funeral.

    Somewhere between this legend and the whole Last Supper betrayal of Jesus debacle arose the belief that having 13 people at a party will result in one of them dying in the next year, though I must admit that I’d never heard of this until a few days ago. Rest assured that from now on I will be counting the number of guests at any social gathering I attend and keeping tabs on the attendees if it turns out that there were 13 of us. Hell, I might throw a party and invite 12 people just to see what happens. I’m just barely evil and completely skeptical enough to try it.

    It might be worth noting that Loki is also considered to be a mythological representation of the Jungian archetype of the Trickster, while some consider Judas to be the archetype of the Traitor, although that’s not an official archetype, and so most people just think he was a dick. But now that I’ve written this, I have no idea where to go with it, so I guess it wasn’t worth mentioning. Sorry.

    One interesting but highly unlikely origin for the dreaded Friday the 13th is that it was on Friday the 13th of October in 1307 when King Philip IV of France had hundreds of the Knights Templar arrested, including Jacques De Molay, their Grand Master. Contrary to what some fans have ignorantly babbled, Dan Brown didn’t discover this little historical tidbit, although he did portray it as fact when it’s almost universally considered to be a good story, but one with no basis in reality. Like I said, Friday the 13th was no big deal until 600 years later.

    De Molay curses Philip and ClementAnd speaking of good fake stories, another one that involves De Molay and may or may not have also been in The Da Vinci Code (I honestly can’t remember) is the one that says that just before he was burned at the stake, he told Phil-4 and Pope Clement that they would be called to judgment for their crimes within a year. Both of them did die less than a year after this: Phil after suffering a stroke while hunting and Clement after a long illness. By some accounts, he died screaming that he was burning up. However, most believe that this curse was invented after their deaths in order to further mythologize the status of De Molay and the Knights Templar.

    There are also traditionally 13 witches in a coven, but no one seems to know exactly why. There must be a connection, but it might just be that 13 already had a bad reputation.

    Unlike Christmas, Friday the 13th usually comes but twice a year, unless one of them is in February, which has exactly four weeks (except for leap years), and so you get an extra one in March. You can also have three of them in a leap year that starts on a Sunday, but that doesn’t happen very often. There can also be only one in a year if that year begins on a Tuesday (or Saturday in a leap year). Plan your vacations accordingly.

    Some claim that Friday the 13th costs the U.S. economy $900,000,000 either per year or per occurrence. Sources vary on which one it is, but it likely doesn’t matter because it’s probably crap. Lots of people take a Friday off for a long weekend every once in a while. Even if Friday the 13th sees more of this, it’s still likely a personal or vacation day that the person had coming anyway. Some major airlines have reported seeing no significant difference in bookings for these days, but they could be lying. With an estimated 10% of the population supposedly having a fear of 13, you gotta figure Friday the 13th is having some kind of impact.

    One of my favorite forms of stupidity ever since I was a little kid is buildings pretending not to have a 13th floor. Even then I knew that unless you’ve got an empty space between floors 12 and 14, then you’ve got a 13th floor. You can call it 14 if you want, but that’s just a sad testament to how dimwitted and easily fooled some people can be.

    Do they factor this “missing” floor into the total when stating how many stories a building has? I have no idea, and I’m really not curious enough to spend a day downtown riding elevators to find out, although it might be a fun way to spend next Friday the 13th after I tell my boss that I’m too scared to come to work that day.

    The standard treatment for phobias is to gradually expose the patient to the object or situation that they fear. I’m not sure how you do that to people who are afraid of a date on the calendar. Maybe you could try convincing them that by the time they wake up at 6 am, it’s actually Friday the 13¼th. By lunchtime, it’s the 13½th. Or I suppose that you could arrange for something really rotten to happen to them on Thursday the 12th (utilitarians and pragmatists only). That way, no matter what happens the next day, it won’t seem so bad – may God have mercy on your cold, dead soul (utilitarian and pragmatic deists only).

    If you want the rare opportunity to be both logical and foolish at the same time, you could try to reason with the unreasonable and point out to them that there have been many calendars over the millennia and that the Gregorian calendar is just an arbitrary human construct. There is nothing in the laws of nature that designates that any day is Friday, or that any day is the 13th day of anything. Case in point: by the Discordian calendar, today is Boomtime, the 25th day of the Season of The Aftermath, Year of our Lady of Discord 3181. Good luck with that.

    And finally, while there’s no shortage of websites that have lists of unusual/amusing phobias, most of them really aren’t that great. Following their bold example, I will now join them in their mediocrity by listing my own favorite phobias that aren’t all that funny.

    Amnesiphobia – fear of amnesia, and possibly the most irrational of all irrational fears, because if you actually got amnesia, you wouldn’t remember being afraid of it.

    Coprastasophobia – the fear of constipation, and

    Defecaloesiophobia – fear of painful bowel movements, either of which could have been the inspiration for the phrase “scared s@#tless.”

    Lutraphobia – fear of otters, because they are terrifying beasts.            

    Aliumphobia – fear of garlic, and

    Spectrophobia – fear of mirrors: a common combination among vampires.

    Atomosophobia – fear of atomic explosions, because most of us just take those in stride.

    Epistemophobia – the fear of knowledge, and

    Eleutherophobia – fear of freedom, both of which are currently running rampant in the Middle East, along with:

    Eurotophobia – the fear of female genitalia. No wonder things are so screwed up over there.

    Phobophobia – the fear of phobias. That’s an infinite loop you’ll never get out of.

    And my absolute favorite:

    Anatidaephobia – the fear that you are being watched by a duck.


    If you doubt the reality of any of these, keep in mind that it only takes one person to have a phobia for it to be a real thing. With 7,000,000,000 screwed up people on this planet, anything is possible. Somewhere there’s probably some poor schmuck who’s scared to death of Snickers bars – sokolatarachicalamellophobia?

    And one parting thought, because I honestly think that it might be relevant in trying to understand and show compassion for our fellow messed up human beings:

    Some think that phobias might be caused by a dormant memory of a frightening experience from a previous life. If you’re terrified of horses even though you’ve never had a bad experience with them, maybe you were trampled in a stampede in a previous life, or something like that. Maybe.

    and all the devils are here