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French word of the day: Poisson d’avril

French word of the day: Poisson d'avril
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond
Why, to the French, a fool is someone with a fish stuck on their back.

Why do I need to know poisson d’avril?

So that if someone ever someone glues a fish to your back, you will know why.

What does it mean?

Poisson d’avril is what in English is known as an April Fool. The annual tradition of telling jokes and untruths to friends and shout ‘April Fool!’ also takes place in France, only here they yell poisson d’avril ! – April fish – on April 1st.

What on earth do fish have to do with April Fool’s Day?

Good question. There are lots of different theories as to how this expression originated. One says it comes from April being a bad month for fishing, so claiming to eat one that month had to be a joke. Another ties it to the Dunkerque Carnival tradition, which starts with dried herrings wrapped in plastic being thrown from the City Call to a crowd gathered below. 

Whatever its origin, April Fool’s Day in France today is inextricably linked to fish. You can find them everywhere in French chocolate shops, delicious little chocolate fish ready to be eaten.

These sardines are actually chocolate treats. Photo: AFP

French school kids spend April 1st drawing fish on paper and gleefully gluing them to their classmate’s backs. Coller un poisson dans le dos de quelqu’un means ‘to stick a fish in someone’s back’ (‘in’, and not ‘on’). They don’t yell poisson d’avril until later (obviously, as the other would discover the fish, which would ruin the joke).

French people love April 1st and French media love making April Fool’s jokes. If you see an absurd news story on le premier d’avril (April 1st) you can say

C’est sûrement un poisson d’avril – it’s surely an April Fool.

Another way of saying it is a blague du premier avril – an April 1st joke.

Last years several media organisations in France opted not to do a poisson d’avril because of all the misinformation circulating about Covid and as this year things are again pretty bleak on the health front there are likely to be fewer jokes doing the rounds.

But there’s always a chocolate fish to lift your spirits.

Member comments

  1. When we were restoring our house, the mason presented me with the monthly bill, which included ‘fourniture d’un gros gardon – 80,000 francs’! Even with what we were spending, that seemed a bit gross. ‘Qu’est-ce que c’est un gros gardon?’ ‘Regardez la date’ and, indeed, the invoice was dated April 1, and was replaced by a non-fishy March 31. He had thought long and hard about a fish we wouldn’t know/eat. Since then we have learnt ‘Etre frais comme un gardon’ but, it’s true, roach had never appeared on our plates.

  2. This probably relates to people saying in English that something is ‘fishy’, meaning that the something is probably untrue, or the deal is probably fraudulent, or of dubious character, suspicious, etc. It would be interesting to check what the english dictionaries give for the derivation of this meaning.

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