A snipe hunt is an American coming-of-age ritual and a type of practical joke or prank that involves experienced people making fun of newcomers in a group by giving them an impossible or imaginary task. The "snipe" in this case is an imaginary animal that the target of the prank must help catch in an outlandish way. The snipe hunt is a particular kind of fool's errand or wild-goose chase that a person may be assigned as part of a hazing ritual through which a newcomer gains acceptance into a group of older or more experienced peers.
The actual family of shorebirds called snipe have been hunted as game birds, unrelated to the kind of practical joke known as a snipe hunt.
In North America
Although the snipe is a real bird, the snipe hunt is a practical joke, often associated with outdoor camping; an unsuspecting newcomer is led to an outdoor spot and given a bag or pillowcase for catching the snipe; the other group members leave, promising to chase the snipe toward the person with the bag. Instead, they return home or to camp, leaving the newcomer alone in the dark to discover that they have been duped and left "holding the bag". Folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand writes that
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.
The snipe hunt was in existence as early as 1847 in the United States. As a kind of fool's errand or wild-goose chase—meaning a fruitless errand or expedition—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. Folklorist Simon J. Bronner writes that the snipe hunt has a part in children's folklore in which
the young person who aspires to join a group of older boys or girls is given a bag to catch a mysterious bird. The youngster draws laughs at being left literally 'holding the bag' and, as a result of being made aware of his or her gullibility, joins the group.
One variant of the snipe hunt involves experienced outdoorsmen making fun of newcomers; in this version, novice campers or hunters are told about a "small, dangerous creature" called the "snipe" and are told to capture it by running through the woods carrying a bag and making strange noises. Gerard O'Neil writes that
The 'optimal' snipe habitat is usually on a trail remote from the camp, and those who are in on the joke return to camp and have a laugh at the newcomer's expense. However, in another variant of snipe hunting, a large group spreads out to hunt the snipe with sacks. After thrashing about the woods in the dark for some time, the snipe is captured by one of the leaders of the hunt and with much care and fanfare is brought back to camp. When the bag is opened, the 'snipe' escapes so quickly that no one sees it.
Actual snipe hunting
Snipe are a family of shorebirds. While the term snipe hunt usually refers to a prank, snipe can in fact be hunted for sport.[non-primary source needed] The difficulties involved in hunting snipe gave rise to the term “sniper”, meaning a sharpshooter or someone who shoots from a hidden location.
- Palmatier, Robert Allen (1995). Speaking of Animals: A Dictionary of Animal Metaphors. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing. p. 357. ISBN 0313294909.
- Watts, Linda S. (2006). Encyclopedia of American folklore. New York, N.Y.: Facts On File. p. 206. ISBN 0-8160-5699-4.
- 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 9781610695671.
- Brunvand, Jan Harold. American Folklore: An Encyclopedia. New York, N.Y.: Taylor & Francis. p. 1233. ISBN 0-81530-751-9.
- Marsh, Moira (2015). "Lies, Damned Lies, and Legends". Practically Joking. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press. ISBN 0-8742-1983-3.
Having laid the groundwork with accounts of the creature and its habits, jokers lead the dupes into the woods at night and leave them there, armed with sacks and other implements, promising to beat the bushes to drive to prey toward them. The jokers return to camp, leaving their targets alone in the dark woods—and in the dark epistemologically—until they either give up or figure out their error.
- Paris, Leslie (2008). Children's Nature: The Rise of the American Summer Camp. New York University Press. pp. 104–105. ISBN 0814767508.
- "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." (Fee & Webb 2016)
- 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 9781617036156.
- 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 9781626194984.
- Glimm, James Y. (1983). Flatlanders and ridgerunners : folktales from the mountains of northern Pennsylvania. University of Pittsburgh Press. p. 187. ISBN 0-8229-5345-5.
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.'
- Chartois, Jo; Claudel, Calvin (1945). "Hunting the Dahut: A French Folk Custom". The Journal of American Folklore. 58 (227): 21–24. doi:10.2307/535332.
Translator's note: Dahut hunting is comparable to our American snipe hunting.
- Houser, Jason. "Snipe Hunting Is Real [VIDEO] | Griffin's Guide to Hunting and Fishing". Retrieved 2016-04-26.
- "sniper (n.)". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 7 January 2017.
- Bronner, Simon J. (1988). American Children's Folklore. Little Rock, AR: August House. pp. 170–171. ISBN 0-8748-3068-0.
- Ellis, Bill (1981). "The Camp Mock-Ordeal Theater as Life". The Journal of American Folklore. 94 (374): 486–505. doi:10.2307/540502.
- Glimm, James Y. (1983). Flatlanders and ridgerunners : folktales from the mountains of northern Pennsylvania. University of Pittsburgh Press. pp. 12–13. ISBN 0-8229-5345-5.
- Posen, I.S. (1974). "Pranks and practical jokes at children's summer camps". Southern Folklore Quarterly. 38 (4): 299–309. ISSN 0038-4127. OCLC 1766187.
- Smith, Johana H. (April 1957). "In the Bag: A Study of Snipe Hunting". Western Folklore. 16 (2): 107–110. doi:10.2307/1497027.
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