In a Word: Spoof, hoax, and April pranks

Spouf, now spelled spoof, was originally a card game invented by Arthur Roberts (1852-1933), a noted comedian. It is now, of course, used to mean an act of trickery or hoaxing, and its verbal form is used for such action.

Roberts’ game was first invented at the Adelphi Club in London, but seems to have disappeared without trace. Two subsequent games have also been named Spoof, the next a commercial card game published in 1918 by Milton Bradley, and then in more recent years a drinking (bar) game involving three coins, hence known as Three Coin.

This modern version of Spoof has a World Championship – the last winner being Geoff Walker, a member of the Gentlemen Spoofers of Bangkok.

Each player has 3 coins, and decides how many, 0 to 3, to hold in a closed hand. The guesser has the task of guessing the total number of coins held by the other players. Play proceeds clockwise around the group, each person venturing a guess in turn. No two players can give the same guess. Once all the players have guessed, they all open their hands and the total is worked out. The player who made the correct guess is them eliminated, and so it proceeds. The last remaining player pays the stake to each other player.

The OED records the first written use of spoof in 1884, by which time it was already being used to describe hoaxing or humbugging more generally. It was also used as a verb very quickly, by 1889. The Spoofery or Spooferies came to signify a low sporting club, or more specifically the Adelphi Club itself, a usage which appears to have faded in the early 20th century, when spoofery came to mean the act of trickery or hoaxing.

Hoax is a more curious word, which initially might appear to have Greek origins. It was first recorded in 1796, and is thought to be a contraction from the word hocus; it too was quickly used as both noun and verb.

Hocus is a term used for all sorts of trickery and deception from about 1640 onwards, and was shortened from hocus pocus, which appeared in the early 1600s as a name for a juggler, perhaps more the equivalent of a modern magician. This was derived from a sham Latin formula commonly used by jugglers, and appears in Grimm as hokuspokus. There have been claims that it was a parody of the Latin used in Christian Eucharist services, but that was from a single suggestion which has not gained any further support.

Spoofs and hoaxes are all the rage on the first day of April, of course: the day originally known as April-fool-day (first recorded in 1687), for an ancient custom which is widespread across Europe and North America.

But why the first of April?

The first day of April traditionally marks the start of the northern hemisphere Spring, which always used to be the New Year before someone mean moved it to the middle of winter. It was at the start of the year that new squires assumed their role, for which they were termed April-esquires. One of the first things which people did to April-esquires was to send them on fools’ errands, or April-fools.

In the north of England, April-fools were called April-gowks in the 1700s, and probably until much more recent times.

Fools’ errands, spoofs, and hoaxes like April-fools remain widespread in close-knit occupational groups such as the Armed Forces and sailors. The combination – such as the Royal Navy – is rich with them. When they join their first warship, young seamen are assigned tasks such as finding the golden rivet, which is supposedly the final rivet which commemorates the ship’s completion, and of course does not exist. They are also sent to get themselves on a splash target coxswain’s course: splash targets are disposable objects towed for use as target practice, and a coxswain of a splash target would have to be on it to ‘steer’ it whilst it was towed – another wonderful spoof.