What on earth is a 'poisson d'avril'?

There's something very fishy going on here in France... Watch your back - it's French April Fools' Day!


As with the tradition in English speaking countries, April 1st is also a day when the French play tricks on one another.


In France, this day is known simply as le 1er avril and is the day to carry out un poisson d'avril. This is a joke or prank, the most common being the surreptitious sticking of a paper fish onto someone's back...


The exact origins of poisson d'avril remain unknown, but as with other countries, there has been a tradition of springtime jolity and pranks since at least the Middle Ages.


Image: Petit garçon de 6 ans et demi "victime" d'un poisson d'avril, le 1er avril 2018 (Detail) © Benoît Prieur - creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/



The first known mention of the poisson d'avril is in Pierre Michault's "Doctrinal du temps présent", dated 1466, where it refers to a "matchmaker, intermediary, young boy in charge of carrying the love letters of his master". This meaning is backed up in the Livre de la Deablerie by Eloy d'Amerval, dated 1507-1508.


It isn't until the 17th century when its meaning is shown to have changed to "deceit, traditional trickery of April 1st" in  "La Vie de Charles V, duc de Lorraine", by Jean de Labrune, dated 1691. This use enters the "Dictionnaire de l'Académie française" in 1718 with the phrase "donner un poisson d'avril" meaning "to make someone take unnecessary action in order to make fun of them".


At the beginning of the 20th century in France, people would send humourous or decorative postcards to one another featuring an "April" fish. However, many of these appear to carry messages of love or admiration, which hearkens back to its earlier meaning.





In  recent times, more elaborate pranks have been carried out in the media. This charming video shows a couple of these that, although jokes at the time, seem to be coming true nowadays!


If you find the video a little fast, try slowing it down in the video's settings in the bottom righ-hand corner:



Un poisson d'avril - An April Fools' Day trick

Une blague - A joke

Une farce - A trick

Un canular - A prank (or more elaborate trick)

Se faire avoir - To be fooled

Se faire tromper - To be misled

Se rendre compte - To realize


But why a fish? There are several possible explanations for this. Here are three of the most common:

  • One links le poisson d'avril to Easter, which marks the end of the Lenten fast, with fish taking an important place in the diet at that time. Early Christian celebrations were often mixed up with pagan traditions, such as spring fertility rites and passages. In addition, the Christian ichthus, a graphic symbol representing a fish, is often interpreted as an acronym for the name of Jesus used from the 1st to the 4th century and the word fish is said to be a corruption of the word Passion.
  • Another possible origin could come from the practice of opening the fishing season on April 1st, in order to respect the breeding period. To make a gift to the fishermen, and to make fun of them because the fishing was either too easy (abundance on the opening day), they were offered a herring. That's when a popular custom could have set in: a real fish would be surreptitiously hung on people's backs.
  • In the Middle Ages in France, the calendar year began on a different date according to the province. King Charles IX decided, by the Edict of Roussillon in 1564, that the year would henceforth begin on 1 January, marking the lengthening of the days, instead of the end of March, the arrival of spring. Pope Gregory XIII extended this measure to all Christianity, with the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1582. According to legend, many people had difficulty adapting to the new calendar, others were not aware of the change and continued to celebrate April 1st in the old tradition. To make fun of them, some took the opportunity to make up stories for laughs and give them fake fish marking the end of Lent.

Watch out if you happen to be in France on April 1st, as the fun goes on all day!  The rule in English-speaking countries of stopping pranks by midday doesn't exist in France.


Amusez-vous bien !