The custom of April Fools’ Day has been traced to changes in calendars, Roman festivals, and that spring spirit in the air. Finding the true origin of April Fools’ Day may well be a fool’s errand, but what do we know about the origin of the word fool? It turns out its etymology is up to a bit of tomfoolery of its own.
Sometime in the 13th century, English picked up fool from the French fol, a variant of fou, which meant “fool,” but more so in an earlier sense of “madman.” This French fou, in turn, is from–where else–Latin, which had follis, variously meaning “bag, sack, punching bag, inflated ball, bellows,” and “moneybag.” In the plural, it could denote “puffed-out cheeks.”
The principal senses–”bag” and “sack”–explain English words like follicle. Follis had a diminutive form, folliculus, which is more directly behind this follicle.
But it’s the windier meanings like “bellows” or “puffed-out cheeks” that suggest the jump to fool. Walter Skeat focuses on folles, the plural form of follis: “puffed cheeks,” he writes, “whence the term was easily transferred to a vain or foolish person.” OK. Perhaps the connection isn’t quite so transparent, Walter.
In their etymological dictionary of French, Emmanuele Baumgartner and Phillippe Ménard may help us spell out this transference. They point out “des divagations du fou avec celles d’un ballon gonfle d’air.” To paraphrase, the ramblings of a madman are like a bag of air. Later in the life of Latin, follis itself came to signify a “windbag,” according to the ODEE, making a fool a kind of “empty-headed person.”
Ernest Weekley gets a little more colorful, shall we say, in his etymology, which focuses on a different kind of sack and ball. He, too, notes the senses of “bellows” and “windbag” in Latin, but proposes a more specific sense of “scrotum.” First bracket and codpiece, now fool and scrotum? For this, he cites by way of analogy the Italian coglione, meaning “fool” and “little testicle,” as well as Latin, gerro, “fool,” Sicilian for “pudendum.” As far as my research goes, Weekley is alone in this etymology.
Ernest Klein adds another part of the body to the picture of follis, “stomach,” as well as “wind cushion.” These may not enrich our specific understanding of the fool metaphor, but they do fill out the notion of follis as a hollow, bag-like object that can fill up with air. Klein traces follis back to the Proto-Indo-European *bhol-nis, a derivative of *bhel, “to swell.” Joseph Shipley adds “flowing” and “flowering” to the root, making it the origin of a great body of words, from ball to belly to bowl, not to mention words like flower and phallus. We’ve seen this root before in my post on the bowl in “Super Bowl.“
From the Ridiculous to the Sublime
If we let analogy guide us, we might explore around the 14th-century meaning of fool, “jester” or “clown,” pointing us to the culture of professional fools in the Middle Ages through the Renaissance. Perhaps the source of buffoon can teach us something, passed down as it is from French via the Italian buffone, “jester,” from buffa, “jest,” derived from buffare, “to puff.” (We can imagine how the sound buff imitates the action.) As Weekley notes, this puffing is probably “with allusion to cheeks puffed out in grimacing.”
Have you ever made faces at a baby? Say, puffed out your cheeks, trilled your lips, blew out the air? I suppose we’ve all played the fool. Literally. And we’ve all been played by the fool–the wise fool, speaking of court jesters.
Etymologically, wind is associated with madness, but also with divine inspiration. Sanskrit has vatula, variously glossed as “windy,” “affected by wind disease,” and “mad.” In other, related forms, it may well mean “enlightened.”
Old English, too, had wod, which replaced “mad” in meaning and form. (I covered mad recently, too, if you’d like to learn more.) It may well derive from the Proto-Indo-European *wet-, “to blow” but also “to inspire.” It has come interesting cognates: the Old Norse oðr (related to the name of the god Odin), “poetry”; Old Irish faith, “poet”; and the Latin, vates, “prophet, seer” (Vatican is not related). We might remember, too, Latin’s afflatus, referring to a state of divine inspiration, literally, “blown upon,” featuring that same Proto-Indo-European root, *bhel-.
The ramblings of madmen, prophets–the Old Testament had some lessons about this, right? Pity the fool? Perhaps more like pay attention to the fool.