A snipe hunt or fool's errand is a type of practical joke that involves experienced people making fun of credulous newcomers by giving them an impossible or imaginary task. The snipe hunt may be assigned to a target as part of a process of hazing, but the word "sniper" is derived from a marksman with enough skill to shoot one.
A snipe hunt is a specific type of "wild-goose chase", where a person embarks on an impossible search. Where a wild-goose chase may be accidental, a snipe hunt is always initiated by a second person as a prank.
It should also be noted that snipe do in fact exist, and they can be, and are hunted for sport. While the term 'Snipe Hunt' is most commonly used as described above, snipe hunting is a real pursuit.
The origin of the term is a practical joke where inexperienced campers are told about an imaginary bird or animal called the "snipe" as well as a usually preposterous method of catching it, such as running around the woods carrying a bag or making strange noises such as banging rocks together. Real snipe (a family of shorebirds) are difficult to catch for experienced hunters, so much so that the word "sniper" is derived from it to refer to anyone skilled enough to shoot one.
- A practical joke that is often called "snipe hunting" usually involves a group of four or more going into the woods at night to catch snipe. No more than two people remain oblivious to the joke, and they are told to hold open a garbage bag as the others find snipe to chase into the bag. The intended result is for the "chasers" to abandon the person or persons holding the bag in the woods. Some additions to this joke can involve giving faulty equipment to the victims beforehand, such as a flashlight with no batteries.
- In baseball, a manager or a coach will ask a new bat boy to go fetch them a "box of curveballs" or "the key to the batter's box." Former Major League pitcher Rick Sutcliffe would often send the young batboy out to the umpires during pregame to ask for the "keys to the batter's box". This is an age-old baseball 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 target is then left waiting by the shop keeper (who is presumably familiar with the trick) 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", a "souffle pump", left-handed tongs, the "oven key", 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 construction, 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.
- At General Electric's NELA Park plant in the 1920s, as a joke, newly hired engineers would be told to develop a durable frosted (rather than clear) lightbulb, which the experienced engineers believed to be impossible. 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 naïve on a search for a "spool of water line", a "dropped gig line", a "bucket of steam", or the infamous "ID-10-T form" (idiot). First-time crew on aircraft carriers are occasionally assigned a "sea-bat" watch, in order to ensure that "sea-bats" do not infest the aircraft engines, while gullible sailors on vessels of any size may be assigned (after volunteering) to "mail buoy watch", where the newcomer stands watch at night up on the fo'c'sle with binoculars, a shepherd's crook, a strong lamp, and sound-powered phones (through which the watch-standers in the pilothouse impress upon the dupe the importance to ship's company of snagging the 'mail buoy') to spot and snag an air-dropped buoy loaded with the ship's mail. Summoning interested members of ship's company to view the equator is a not-unheard-of occurrence as well.
- In the Canadian military, a common joke is tasking a new soldier to find a "brass magnet" to ease the collection of spent ammunition casings.
- In Boy Scouts, sending a new camper after a "left handed smoke bender" 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", or literally "I am a donkey".
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Jo! Obětovat moc na to nemóžu, ale šesták dám," hrabala Gabra honem v kapse. "Tu máš," povídala Málince, "a kup mně zaň ‚semosel‘.
- The Little Red Book of Firehouse Pranks by Jeff Hibbard (ISBN 0-9667810-0-7)
- "The Snipe" from Henry H. Tryon's Fearsome Critters
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