A snipe hunt is a type of practical joke, in existence in North America as early as the 1840s, in which an unsuspecting newcomer is duped into trying to catch a non-existent animal called a snipe. While snipe are an actual family of birds, the snipe hunt is a quest for an imaginary creature whose description varies.
The target of the prank is led to an outdoor spot and given instructions for catching the snipe; these often include waiting in the dark and holding an empty bag or making noises to attract the prey. The others involved in the prank then leave the newcomer alone in the woods to discover the joke. As an American rite of passage, snipe hunting is often associated with summer camps and groups such as the Boy Scouts.
In North America
Although the snipe is a real bird, the snipe hunt is a practical joke, often associated with summer camps and other types of outdoor camping, in which the victim is tricked into engaging in a hunt for an imaginary creature.
Snipe 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 snipe. The other group members leave, promising to chase the creatures 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".
The snipe hunt is a kind of fool's errand or wild-goose chase, meaning a fruitless errand or expedition, attested as early as the 1840s in the United States. It was the most common hazing ritual for boys in American summer camps during the early 20th century, and is a rite of passage often associated with groups such as the Boy Scouts. In camp life and children's folklore, the snipe hunt provides an opportunity to make fun of newcomers while also accepting them into the group.
Setting the stage for the prank is often done with imaginative descriptions of the snipe, similar to tall tales. For instance, the snipe is said to resemble a cross between a jackrabbit and a squirrel; a squirrel-like bird with one red and one green eye; a small, black, furry bird-like animal that only comes out during a full moon, and so on. According to American Folklore: An encyclopedia:
While the snipe hunt is known in virtually every part of the United States, the description of the prey varies: it may be described as a type of bird, a snake, or a small furry animal. In one version, the snipe is a type of deer with a distinctive call; the dupe is left kneeling and imitating the snipe call while holding the bag to catch it.
In another variation, a bag supposedly containing a captured snipe is theatrically brought to the campsite after a group hunt; the snipe quickly "escapes" unseen when the bag is opened.
- For snipe as a real bird, see Fee & Webb (2016, p. 514); Marsh (2015, pp. 45–48); Palmatier (1995, p. 357).
As an imaginary creature, see Brunvand (1996, p. 233); Marsh (2015, pp. 45–48).
For snipe hunt as summer camp prank, see Fee & Webb (2016, p. 514); Paris (2008, p. 104–5).
As camp prank more generally, see Brunvand (1996, p. 233); Marsh (2015, pp. 45–48); Watts (2006, p. 206).
- For method of the prank, see Brunvand (1996, pp. 233, 1233); Fee & Webb (2016, p. 514); Marsh (2015, pp. 45–48); O'Neil (2014); Palmatier (1995, p. 357); Watts (2006, p. 206).
For implements used, see Fee & Webb (2016, p. 514); Palmatier (1995, p. 357).
For "holding the bag", see Bronner (2012, p. 260); Marsh (2015, pp. 45–48); Palmatier (1995, p. 357).
- As a fool's errand, see Marsh (2015, pp. 8, 45–48); Watts (2006, p. 206).
As a wild-goose chase, see Paris (2008, pp. 104–5).
For earliest date, see Marsh (2015, pp. 45–48).
- The snipe hunt is classified as a variation of Thompson motif J2349, Fool's Errand (Bronner 2012, p. 260).
- For role in hazing and group unity, see Bronner (2012, p. 260); Paris (2008, pp. 104–5); Fee & Webb (2016, p. 514).
For association with the Boy Scouts, see Fee & Webb (2016, p. 514).
- According to Fee & Webb (2016), "Similar fool's errands or wild-goose chases of this kind might include being sent to find a 'smoke-bender' for the campfire or a 'sky-hook' to move a heavy object" (p. 514).
- Marsh (2015), pp. 45–48.
- Brunvand (1996), p. 1233.
- O'Neil (2014).
- See Glimm (1983, p. 187): "Collected all over the United States, the snipe hunt story is an old European folktale (motif J2349.6). In France it is known as 'Hunting the Dahut'".
See also Chartois & Claudel (1945): "Translator's note: Dahut hunting is comparable to our American snipe hunting".
- Bronner, Simon J. (2012). Campus traditions : folklore from the old-time college to the modern mega-university. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. ISBN 978-1-61-703615-6.
- Brunvand, Jan Harold, ed. (1996). American Folklore: An Encyclopedia. New York, N.Y.: Taylor & Francis. ISBN 0-81-530751-9.
- Chartois, Jo; Claudel, Calvin (1945). "Hunting the Dahut: A French Folk Custom". The Journal of American Folklore. 58 (227): 21–24. JSTOR 535332. doi:10.2307/535332.
- Fee, Christopher R.; Webb, Jeffrey B., eds. (2016). American myths, legends, and tall tales : an encyclopedia of American folklore: 3 Volumes. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO. ISBN 1-61-069567-4.
- Glimm, James Y. (1983). Flatlanders and ridgerunners : folktales from the mountains of northern Pennsylvania. University of Pittsburgh Press. ISBN 0-82-295345-5.
- Marsh, Moira (2015). Practically Joking. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press. ISBN 0-87-421983-3.
- O'Neil, Gerard (2014). "The Squonk: A Small Tale From Franklin County". In White, Thomas. Supernatural Lore of Pennsylvania: Ghosts, Monsters and Miracles. Charleston: History Press. ISBN 1-62-619498-X.
- Palmatier, Robert Allen (1995). Speaking of Animals: A Dictionary of Animal Metaphors. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing. ISBN 0-31-329490-9.
- Paris, Leslie (2008). Children's Nature: The Rise of the American Summer Camp. New York University Press. ISBN 0-81-476750-8.
- Watts, Linda S. (2006). Encyclopedia of American folklore. New York, N.Y.: Facts On File. ISBN 0-81-605699-4.
- Bronner, Simon J. (1988). American Children's Folklore. Little Rock, AR: August House. pp. 170–171. ISBN 0-87-483068-0.
- Ellis, Bill (1981). "The Camp Mock-Ordeal Theater as Life". The Journal of American Folklore. 94 (374): 486–505. JSTOR 540502. doi:10.2307/540502.
- Glimm, James Y. (1983). "Snipe Hunting". Flatlanders and ridgerunners : folktales from the mountains of northern Pennsylvania. University of Pittsburgh Press. pp. 12–13. ISBN 0-82-295345-5.
- Posen, I.S. (1974). "Pranks and practical jokes at children's summer camps". Southern Folklore Quarterly. 38 (4): 299–309. ISSN 0038-4127.
- Smith, Johana H. (April 1957). "In the Bag: A Study of Snipe Hunting". Western Folklore. 16 (2): 107–110. JSTOR 1497027. doi:10.2307/1497027.
- "Take Strangers Snipe Hunting". The Enterprise. Williamston, North Carolina. 27 January 1928.
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