A fool's errand prank is a type of practical joke 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. More generally, a fool's errand is a task almost certain to fail.
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.
- One type of 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 repair staff are requested to collect fresh spark plug sparks, by catching sparks from a grinder disc using a small box. Other similar items are "diesel engine spark plugs" (diesels do not have spark plugs), "exhaust pressure bearings" or "piston returner springs".
- 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 victim that it has been moved to another dealership across town, and the prank continues. Also amongst the vehicle related lists are "high speed air" (for tires), likewise "aerodynamic lugnuts".
- A common fool's errand is to send someone to get "blinker fluid" or "turn signal fluid" from an 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.
- 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.
- Electricians commonly send the "new guy" to the toolroom to fetch a "cable stretcher" or a "cordless wire"/"wireless cable".
- 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", “liquid bulkhead (wall) remover”, a "dropped gig line", a "bucket of steam", or the infamous "ID-10-T (idiot) form".
- In the United States Air Force, a new Airman will be asked to stand in front of an aircraft and move back and forth in order to calibrate the weather radar before takeoff. Another request for new aviators is to assist in an air quality check, where they are required to run around the cabin of an aircraft with a plastic trash bag and fill it with air before tying it off and writing the name of the Air quality project on it “I-D-10-T”. This would then be proudly presented to maintenance personnel upon landing.
- In the United States Army, a newly stationed Soldier may be asked to locate a box of grid squares, or capture a Humvee exhaust sample with a trash bag. Another prank involves a squad leader or team leader ordering the dupe to locate a PRC-E7 (PRC being an abbreviation of Portable Radio Communications, and E-7 corresponding to the grade of a Sergeant First Class).
- In Boy Scouts, sending a new camper over to other campsites to borrow a "left handed smoke bender (or shifter)",or a “sky-hook”. "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 bender", "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", literally "I am a donkey".
- In the oilfield in the US and internationally, new hires may be told to get the "keys to the v-door". The v-door is a steel ramp, not a door.
- In the United Kingdom, construction-related jokes often include asking new workers to get "a skirting board ladder", "a bucket of steam", "rubber nails" or "a battery-powered electric plug".
- In Hungary, people might be sent to fetch a "bend-drill", a "circular try square", a "glass-flattener mallet", some "compression", or "filing grease", among other things.
- Merriam-Webster Dictionary: "a needless or profitless endeavor." Cambridge Dictionary: "an effort that is unlikely to be successful."
- Marsh, Moira (2015). Practically Joking. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press. pp. 45–48. ISBN 978-0-87-421983-8.
- Watts, Linda S. (2007). Encyclopedia of American folklore. New York: Facts On File. p. 206. ISBN 978-0-81-605699-6.
- Bronner, Simon J. (2012). Campus traditions : folklore from the old-time college to the modern mega-university. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. p. 260. ISBN 978-1-61-703615-6.
- Fee, Christopher R.; Webb, Jeffrey B., eds. (2016). American myths, legends, and tall tales : an encyclopedia of American folklore. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO. p. 514. ISBN 978-1610695671.
- "Editorial: TTAC's Guide to Car Dealer Lingo". The Truth About Cars. 2009-08-12. Retrieved 2016-12-03.
- "Here's How Actual 'Blinker Fluid' Could Work". Jalopnik. Retrieved 2020-08-18.
- Megargee, Jeremy; Bondoni, Gustavo; Kirby, Oscar; Lubaczewski, Paul; Harrison, Kev; Kolb, Lukas; Bain, Ian; Booth, Die; Striker, J. M. (2019). Creeping Corruption Anthology. Madness Heart Press. ISBN 978-1-7906-4476-6.
- "Sports: A Game Of Inches". gameofinches.blogspot.com. Retrieved 6 September 2015.
- "Eugene Register-Guard". google.com. Retrieved 6 September 2015 – via Google News Archive Search.
- Aman, Reinhold (1996). Maledicta, Volume 12. Maledicta Press. p. 11.
- Stein, Jesse Adams (2016). Hot Metal: Material Culture and Tangible Labour. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-1784994341.
- Josefowitz, Natasha (1988). Fitting In: How to Get a Good Start in Your New Job (illustrated ed.). Addison-Wesley. p. 32. ISBN 0201116537.
- Cameron, Kim S. (2011). The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship (illustrated ed.). Oxford University Press. p. 482. ISBN 978-0199734610.
- Paap, Kris (2006). Working Construction: Why White Working-Class Men Put Themselves – and the Labor Movement – in Harm's Way (illustrated ed.). Cornell University Press. p. 69. ISBN 0801472865.
- Product Finishing, vol 15, 1950, p. 110 (google snippet)
- "Marvin Pipkin". Schenectady Museum. Archived from the original on February 2016. Retrieved 5 September 2016.
- "Cable Stretcher". Electrician's Slang. Retrieved 2020-10-15.
- Cutler, Deborah (2005). Dictionary of Naval Terms (illustrated ed.). Naval Institute Press. p. 182. ISBN 1-59114-150-8.
- Joey D. Ossian (2004). A Marine's Lapse in Synapse: Part II: More Unbelievable, But True Short Stories. AuthorHouse. p. 96. ISBN 978-1-4140-4945-8.
- Rich, Alvin (1984). The History of the BSA. Aramco Press. p. 87.
- Matej Kobza. "Kto zaváha, naletí". munimedia.cz. Retrieved 6 September 2015.
- "Apríl". Žena.cz, magazín pro ženy. 28 March 2014. Retrieved 6 September 2015.
- Matthew V. Veazy. "A Newcomer's Guide to Oil and Gas". Rigzone. Retrieved 15 October 2020.
- "Tricks of the Trade - Hilarious Fools Errands". Chadwicks Blog. 2016-11-11. Retrieved 2020-10-17.