Happy April Fools’ Day! On this day that originated in the 1680s with the custom of “sending people on false errands” (or hunting the gowk, as the Scots called it), we’re rounding up our favorite fool words.
Not interested? Check out Google’s newest product instead. Happy gowk hunting!
“I see what you are after; but you’ll not wheedle me: I am no cat’s-paw.”
Charlotte Bronte, Shirley, 1849
A cat’s-paw is “a person used by another as a dupe or tool.” The term comes from the earlier cat’s-foot, which refers to “the fable or tale of a monkey (or a fox) using the foot or paw of a cat to rake roasted chestnuts out of the burning coals,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).
A cat’s-paw is also “a light breeze that ruffles small areas of a water surface,” and “a knot made by twisting a section of rope to form two adjacent eyes through which a hook is passed, used in hoisting.”
“On being let in, the girls of the house flocked round Charles, whom they knew, and from the earliness of my escape, and their perfect ignorance of his ever having so much as seen me, not having the least suspicion of his being accessory to my flight, they were, in their way, making up to him; and as to his companion, they took him probably for a fresh cully.”
John Cleland, Memoirs of Fanny Hill, 1749
Cully refers to a fool or a dupe, or the act of fooling or duping. The origin of the word is uncertain. It may come from cullion, an obsolete term for “a low or despicable fellow,” as well as slang for “testicle.”
Cullion is French in origin and ultimately comes from the Latin coleus, “a leather bag, the scrotum” (see the Spanish cojones).
“The names of various stupid birds have been used at different periods for ‘fool’ or ‘dupe’: – gull (properly a ‘young bird’ of any kind), pigeon, daw, dodo, dotterel, and rook.”
James Bradstreet Greenough and George Lyman Kittredge, Words and Their Ways in English Speech, 1901
A dotterel is a kind of bird in the plover family. The word seems to come from the Middle German doten, “to be foolish” (see dotage). The bird, says the Century Dictionary, “derives its name from its apparent stupidity, or tameness, allowing itself to be easily approached and taken.” Hence, dotterel gained the meaning of a person who is easily duped.
“When Taffy turned to look for him, he was gone, without even taking the trouble to call his dupe a fool.”
William Elliot Griffis, Welsh Fairy Tales, 1921
Dupe, which we would have guessed came from duplicity, is thieves’ cant, possibly coming from the phrase de huppe, “of the hoopoe.” The hoopoe is “an extravagantly crested and reputedly stupid bird.” Duplicity, by the way, comes from Late Latin duplicitās, “doubleness.”
“The sharper then retires to his place of business and keeps a lookout for the gudgeon, who turns up soon afterward.”
“Catching Gudgeons: Horse Sharpers and the Way They Swindle,” The Daily Herald, January 9, 1885
Gudgeon is another dupe word based on the apparent stupidity of an animal, this time a small freshwater fish related to the carp. The gudgeon has a reputation of being easily caught and therefore used for bait. The word comes from the Latin gobios, a kind of small fish.
“It should be observed, however, that ‘gull,’ a dupe, did not refer specially to the sea gull, the word having formerly meant a young bird of any kind.”
“Rook and Crook,” The Pittsburgh Press, February 7, 1913
The origin of the dupe meaning of gull has a number of possibilities. It may come from an early meaning of any “unfledged bird,” or else from gullet, with the idea of a gull being “someone who will swallow anything thrown at him,” says the Online Etymology Dictionary.
“Any muggins can write about Old Times on the Miss. of 500 different kinds, but I am the only man alive that can scribble about the piloting of that day–and no man ever has tried to scribble about it yet.”
Mark Twain, The Letters Of Mark Twain, Complete, 1853-1866
According to the OED, “the surname Muggins is well attested in the names of various characters presented as foolish or easily tricked in 18th- and 19th-cent. popular and comic writing,” hence the meaning of muggins as a fool or idiot, often when ironically referring to oneself.
Muggins also refers to a children’s card game, a game of dominoes, and the act of scoring against an opponent due to the opponent’s mistake.
“Pigeon dropper. It’s the name the Windsor Police have given to teams of two, three or four persons who conspire to dupe a ‘pigeon,’ or victim, of hard-earned cash.”
Rosemary McCracken, “Police Warn of Frauds,” The Windsor Star, December 27, 1974
Pigeon came to mean “a simpleton to be swindled” probably due to the bird’s perceived lack of smarts. According to the Century Dictionary, a pigeon is opposed to the savvier rook, a kind of crow, which also came to mean a swindler or cheat. To pluck a pigeon means to swindle someone, says the OED.
The term stool pigeon, “a person acting as a decoy or as an informer, especially one who is a spy for the police,” comes from the hunting practice of “tying decoy pigeons to a stool to attract other pigeons.”
“’Oh, yeah, (dropping the formality of thou art), you’re a reeky, pale-hearted rabbit-sucker,’ a student says.”
Bruce R. Posten, “Students Learn Shakespeare Is to Be Played, Not Just Read,” Reading Eagle, October 19, 2000
A rabbit-sucker is a suckling rabbit, therefore someone young, naive, and ripe for the picking by predators.
William Shakespeare seems to have originated the phrase in Henry IV: “Depose me? if thou dost it half so gravely, so majestically, both in word and matter, hang me up by the heels for a rabbit-sucker or a poulters hare.”
“In the seven ‘Road’ movies with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour, Hope fashioned his classic persona: the cutesy coward, the bumbling braggart, the schnook who loses the girl to the debonair Crosby.”
Jack Kroll, “Springing Eternal,” Newsweek, April 10, 2003
The word is U.S. slang that became popular in the 1940s, and either comes from the Yiddish shnuk, “snout,” or is an alteration of schmuck.
“What, will you make a younker of me? shall I not take mine case in mine inn but I shall have my pocket picked?”
William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part 1, 1597
In addition to a dupe, younker also refers to “a young man of condition; a young gentleman or knight,” and “a young person; a lad; a youngster.”
The word probably came to mean a novice or simpleton from the idea a youngster being easily tricked and taken advantage of. The word comes from the Obsolete Dutch jonchere, “young nobleman.”