A snipe hunt is a type of practical joke or fool's errand, in existence in North America as early as the 1840s, in which an unsuspecting newcomer is duped into trying to catch a nonexistent animal called a snipe. Although snipe are an actual family of birds, a 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 creature. 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 France, a similar joke is called "hunting the dahut".
In North America
Although snipe are a real family of birds, 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 creatures. The other group members leave, promising to chase the snipe toward the newcomer; instead, they return home or to camp, leaving the victims 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.
In Spain a similar joke is called "cazar gamusinos". (hunting gamusinos). The "gamusino" is an imaginary animal creature with no defined description.
The term snipe hunt may also be a reference to someone looking for an imaginary item that does not exist.
- 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, pp. 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).
- Bronner (2008, p. 72); Fee & Webb (2016, p. 514)
- 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".
- Fell, Paul (2017). "Snipe Hunt". cartoonstock.com. Retrieved August 8, 2020.
- Bronner, Simon J. (2008). Killing Tradition: Inside Hunting and Animal Rights Controversies. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 978-0-81-312528-2.
- 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.
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- 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. ISSN 1535-1882. JSTOR 535332.
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- O'Neil, Gerard (2014). "The Squonk: A Small Tale From Franklin County". In White, Thomas (ed.). Supernatural Lore of Pennsylvania: Ghosts, Monsters and Miracles. Charleston: History Press. ISBN 978-1-62-619498-4.
- 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 978-0-81-476750-4.
- Watts, Linda S. (2006). Encyclopedia of American folklore. New York, NY: Facts On File. ISBN 0-81-605699-4.
- Bronner, Simon J. (1988). American Children's Folklore. Little Rock: 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. doi:10.2307/540502. ISSN 1535-1882. JSTOR 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. doi:10.2307/1497027. JSTOR 1497027. OCLC 808993138.
- "Take Strangers Snipe Hunting". The Enterprise. Williamston, North Carolina. January 27, 1928.
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