Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
“Your shoelace is untied.”
I bend down to tie my shoe.
“April Fool!” (raucous laughter)
That’s a childhood example of an April Fools’ Day prank—a trick played on the April fool that is supposed to be funny.
In the US for many Christians, Easter fell on April 1 this year, the same day as April Fools’ Day. That brought more attention to April Fools’ Day than usual, and it created all sorts of opportunities for people to share not just a church service, spring meal, or egg hunt but also pranks.
For April Fools’ Day is the day pranksters play pranks on others (then showing themselves to be April fools and then being called out as “April Fool!!!”)
What a mean tradition! But it is fun, in the right spirit.
My young great-niece gave me the best example of an April Fools’ Day prank. When we arrived at her aunt’s house for noon-time dinner, we were told that Claire had made special brownies for all of us. Since she is learning to cook and loves to do it, and since her mother had prepared homemade carrot cake and at last two kinds of cookies, complete with jelly beans and shaped like bunnies, for all of us, we just thought Claire had joined in and followed a recipe herself. Aw, how sweet!
After dinner, with all of us happy and full, Claire’s dad went with Claire to get the special brownies out of his car’s trunk. They re-entered with a covered baking sheet and offered each of us one of Claire’s special brownies. The photo of mine appears below.
What a special brown E indeed! (the paper is browner than it looks in this photo)
(Her mother tells me Alexa gets credit for the idea, but Claire executed it perfectly!)
A friend’s brother has a history of pulling elaborate pranks on his family members, though it gets harder to catch them off guard now.
That’s part of the trick of April Fools’ pranks, of course—your fool can’t be aware that it’s a trick but has to be fooled, as I was with my special brownie.
At the heart of the April Fools’ prank is that it you have to believe a lie. A gentle lie, we hope, one that does no harm, but a lie nonetheless.
That got me thinking (of course)--
What other genres require us to lie?
One obvious one is fiction of all sorts. But with fiction we know it’s not true. That’s a key distinction of fiction from nonfiction, of fictive genres versus fact-based ones—whether we are supposed to believe it is true (writers of “memoirs” like James Frey who pretend fiction is true get a lot of reader resentment and their books reclassified).
The lies of fiction are ones we know are there but pretend otherwise—the willing suspension of disbelief. There may be a deeper truth, but on the surface it’s a lie and we know it.
April Fools’ pranks we don’t know are lies. If we do, they don’t work.
Then there are jokes—funny, and usually not true, or at least exaggerated truth, but not intending to fool the listener. Again, willing suspension of disbelief in order to be amused or instructed.
Another genre that requires us to lie are childhood myths [SPOILER ALERT—do not read past if you are a child or reading aloud to a child, as I’m sure applies to many of my readers).
We create elaborate tales of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, even the Easter Bunny. For most of us, young children are told these tales as true, and we want them to believe. Just like April Fools’ pranks.
When someone finds out it’s not true (like an older sibling), we ask them to keep the secret and keep pretending the lie is true. Just like April Fools’ pranks. If you recognize the prank and you tell others, you spoil it for everybody. (There might have been some smart person in the room besides Daddy who realized what Claire’s special brownies might be, but that person did not spoil the surprise for the rest of us.)
But when you do find out the childhood tale isn’t true, there’s no laughter. No one shouts at a growing child, “Santa Claus Fool!!! Ha ha ha!!” Instead, when the truth is discovered, it’s sad. Not like April Fools’ pranks. (Unless you really were counting on a delicious brownie, I suppose)
So I wonder if the requirements of the April Fools’ prank make it a unique genre, like all genres. In this case, the prank requires you to lie successfully, and the discovery of the lie to be received as funny.
Of course, every genre has variations. Some pranksters go too far, and the prank makes the April fool mad rather than amused. I hear that many adults play the April Fools’ game that way—somehow hauling your living room sofa onto a roof, or filling your yogurt container with shaving cream, or sealing shut all the locks on your car. Ha. Not exactly funny. But the April Fools’ tradition expects the fooled one to suck it up and be a good sport, to admit that the joke’s on them. Ha ha grrr
There’s a difference between a prank and a lie, I suppose, at the heart of April Fools’ Day. Calling it a “prank” necessarily makes it less serious and all in fun.
I hope you’ll let me know if you think of other genres that depend on lies to be successful, and on others believing the lie, and for it to be a happy thing.
In these days when we can probably all think of lots of successful lies that aren’t particularly funny, and we hear more from trolls than from pranksters, it’s good to remember that being fooled isn’t always a bad thing, and that it can be good to laugh at ourselves. But let’s serve each other brown E’s rather than locking each other out