Fool’s Errand

Blinker fluid

fool’s errand is a type of practical joke or prank where a newcomer to a group, typically in a professional context, is given an impossible or nonsensical task by older or more experienced members of the group.

Many such errands require the victim to travel some distance and request an impossible object by name; the prank will be widely known within the peer group as an in-joke, and the person they ask for the object will play along, often by sending the victim on to make the same request elsewhere. The errand is an example of a hazing ritual, through which a newcomer gains acceptance into a group.

A North American fool’s errand is the ‘snipe hunt.’ The hunters are typically led to an outdoor spot at night and given a bag or pillowcase along with instructions that can include either waiting quietly or making odd noises to attract the creatures. The other group members leave, promising to chase the snipe toward the newcomer; instead, they return home or to camp, leaving the victim of the prank alone in the dark to discover that they have been duped and left ‘holding the bag.’ As an American rite of passage, it is often associated with summer camps and groups such as the Boy Scouts.

New car salespeople are often sent to different dealerships around town to get the ‘lot stretcher.’ After reaching the new dealership, the manager informs the salesperson that it just got moved to another dealership across town, and the prank continues.

A common fool’s errand is to send someone to get ‘blinker fluid’ or ‘turn signal fluid’ from a automotive parts store. In baseball, a manager or a coach will ask a new batboy to fetch them a ‘box of curveballs’ or ‘the keys to the batter’s box.’ Major League pitcher Rick Sutcliffe would often perform this prank. In the pizza-making business, newcomers are told to look in the fridge for the ‘dough repair kit.’ Another variation includes being sent to procure a ‘long weight’ or ‘long stand,’ the idea being that the dupe will reach the shop (or equivalent source of the mythical object) and place the request. The victim is then delayed by the shopkeeper and thus receives a long wait.

Other common restaurant practical jokes include sending the new employee to another restaurant to borrow the ‘bacon stretcher,’ ‘lobster food,’ ‘lobster gun,’ a ‘souffle pump,’ left-handed tongs, the ‘oven key,’ a left-handed broom, or a ‘can of steam.’ An alternative prank is to instruct the new employee to empty a coffee machine or hot water tower of its water (the machine being connected to a water line and thus never able to be ’emptied.’

In the decorating and construction trade, a ‘left-handed screwdriver,’ ‘board stretcher,’ ‘eye measures,’ ‘hammer grease,’ ‘wall expander,’ ‘glass hammer,’ ‘striped or tartan paint,’ ‘metric crescent wrench,’ ‘bucket of grinder sparks,’ or ‘box of assorted knots’ are analogous pranks. Another such errand subject, ‘polka-dot paint,’ became real in the 1950s with the development of a polychromatic paint which created a dotted effect when dry.

At General Electric’s NELA Park plant in the 1920s, as a joke, newly hired engineers would be told to develop an inside frosted lightbulb, which the experienced engineers believed to be impossible (previous bulbs had been sandblasted for the frosting effect, which caused brittleness). In 1925, newly hired Marvin Pipkin got the assignment, and astonished his peers by succeeding.

In the United States Navy, pranks have included sending a new sailor after a ‘BT Punch’ (a fist-punch) from a Boiler Technician who works in the Engine Room; ‘red lamp oil for the port running light’ and ‘green lamp oil for the starboard running light’; a ‘gallon of prop wash’; and ‘sound-powered phone batteries.’ Other examples are to send the dupe on a search for a ‘spool of water line,’ a ‘dropped gig line,’ a ‘bucket of steam,’ or the infamous ‘ID-10-T (idiot) form.’

In Boy Scouts, sending a new camper after a ‘left handed smoke bender (or shifter),’ ‘elbow grease,’ or ‘100 feet of shoreline’ are similar practices. In the Czech Republic, if one breaks a spirit level, they might be asked to go and ‘buy a new bubble.’ Other construction-related jokes include buying a ‘brick bende,’ ‘a bender straightener,’ or ‘aerosol nails.

In the Czech Republic, a child might be sent to the pharmacy to buy some ‘semosel.’ Spelled correctly, ‘jsem osel’ means ‘I am a fool,’ or literally ‘I am a donkey.’

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