Snipe hunt

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This article is about impossible tasks, often referred to as fool’s errands. For other uses, see Fool's errand (disambiguation).

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.[1] 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.[2]

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.[3]

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.[4]


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.[1] 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.[2]


  • 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."
  • In Film Production, a new Production Assistant or Set Intern is asked to run to the nearest camera store and bring back some T-stops to set.
  • In IT, old employees are asked to find a "power node".[citation needed]
  • In the pizza-making business, newcomers are told to look in the fridge for the "dough repair kit".[5]
  • 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.[6]
  • 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".[7][8] 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 logging, a new choker setter would be sent way uphill to the landing to ask the yarder operator for a "sky-hook".
  • 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.[9]
  • Similarly, in heavy construction, "green" employees are often asked to find "Triplex nails". (Duplex nails have two heads, so they can be sunk and still easily removed. A "Triplex" would be obviously redundant.)
  • At General Electric's NELA Park plant in the 1920s, as a joke, newly hired engineers would be told to develop a 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.[10]
  • In Switzerland, it is common for a painter to send his apprentice for a "frog hair brush" and for electricians to advise their apprentices to "wipe up the voltage drops".
  • 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".[11] 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).[12] 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 United States Air Force, a newcomer is sent to get some "prop wash", "fallopian tubes", "K-9P lubricant" (canine pee), "flight line", "a yard of flightline", a "pallet stretcher", or "keys to the aircraft".
  • In the United States Army, a newcomer is sent to get some "military bearing grease", "headlamp fluid", a "box of grid squares", an "ID 10 T form", a "bravo alpha 1100 november" (balloon), a "chemlight battery", an "exhaust sample" or a "cannon report". A novice tank crewman might be sent to obtain the "key to the turret traverse lock" or ordered to inspect the tank to look for "soft spots in the armor".
  • In the United States Marine Corps, a newcomer (called a "boot") will be sent to a gunnery sergeant (pay grade E-7) for a "PRC-E7" (pronounced "Prick-E7").
  • 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.[13]
  • In Boy Scouts, sending a new camper after a "left handed smoke bender"[14] or "100 feet of shoreline" are similar practices.
  • 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.[15][16]
  • Financial institutions in London often send newcomers to another building or business to fetch "verbal agreement forms".
  • 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",[17] "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".[18][19]
  • In Slovakia, one might seek to buy a "fajrontový kľúč", a term popularized by a song of the same name by the band Vrbovskí víťazi.[citation needed]
  • In the Netherlands, common prank objects are the Plintentrapje (baseboard ladder), a box of blue/red ignition sparks, nailheads, air anchors, wooden electrodes, a square hole drill, an AC battery and the colour bar (at TV studios).[citation needed]
  • In the German marine, similar requests are to go feed the bilge sow, to fetch frequency bending pliers or to check on the ship's middle brake (or to operate said brake, if the vessel has a winch).[citation needed]
  • In the Croatian region of Istria, one might send an employee to find a bucket of "letrika" or "kurent", the terms being slang for electricity in the local dialect.

In popular culture[edit]

  • In Thimble Theatre in the January 14, 1922, strip, Castor Oyl, not wanting Olive Oyl to sail to Dice Island with him, sent her to get a "dime's worth of longitude", expecting to be sailing before she gave up. Popeye made his debut in the strip during this sequence.
  • In the movie Up, Carl tries to fool Russell by telling him about snipes. Later, when they meet Kevin, Russell believes he has found it, leaving Carl in disbelief. Many sources, including Pete Docter's study guide to Up, say that Kevin's species is the mythical "snipe", a fictional bird created to send foolish people on wild goose chases. Similarly in Dug's Special Mission, it is revealed that Alpha gave Dug a series of fool's errands, including watching a large rock to keep it from rolling, to keep him out of their way while they hunted Kevin (all of which backfired miserably).
  • "Long Stand", a 1980s song by David Harley, is partly based on examples of apprentice hazing such as sending a lad off for a "long stand" or a "can of striped paint", though its main theme is unemployment.[20]
  • In "Help Wanted", the very first episode of SpongeBob SquarePants, a skeptical Mr. Krabs and Squidward send new employee SpongeBob on a mission to obtain a "hydrodynamic spatula with port and starboard attachments and a turbo-drive", thinking he will never be able to find such a spatula. However, SpongeBob successfully manages to locate this exact product in the local supermarket.
  • In Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, the police are diverted on a snipe hunt so that a mob can try to harm prisoner Tom Robinson.
  • In the third episode of Red vs. Blue, "The Rookies", Grif and Simmons send new recruit Donut to pick up some "elbow grease" and "headlight fluid" from the store, which itself does not exist.
  • In the third episode of King of the Hill, "The Order of the Straight Arrow", Hank, Boomhauer, Bill, and Dale are shown reminiscing as children being taught by their fathers how to camp, including a snipe hunt. Now grown, the adult group keeps the tradition alive.
  • In the American sitcom Cheers, the gang send Frasier on a snipe hunt in Season 3, Episode 14, "The Heart Is a Lonely Snipehunter".
  • In the first episode of Doug, Doug is tricked into a snipe hunt, attempting to catch "neematoads" in the swamp, by town bully Roger Klotz.[21]
  • In Game of Thrones Season 1, Episode 5 "The Wolf and the Lion", King Robert Baratheon sends Lancel Lannister on a snipe hunt to find a "breastplate stretcher".

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Palmatier, Robert Allen. Speaking of Animals: A Dictionary of Animal Metaphors. Greenwood Publishing. p. 375. ISBN 0313294909. 
  2. ^ a b "Online Etymology Dictionary". Retrieved 6 September 2015. 
  3. ^ Paris, Leslie (2008). Children's Nature: The Rise of the American Summer Camp. NYU Press. p. 104. ISBN 0814767508. 
  4. ^ Houser, Jason. "Snipe Hunting Is Real [VIDEO] | Griffin's Guide to Hunting and Fishing". Retrieved 2016-04-26. 
  5. ^ Aman, Reinhold (1996). Maledicta, Volume 12. Maledicta Press. p. 11. 
  6. ^ Humphries, Vaughan (2008). Grumpy Young Man: The Incoherent Mutterings of a Humanitarian Misanthrope. AuthorHouse. p. 393. ISBN 1467899437. 
  7. ^ Josefowitz, Natasha (1988). Fitting In: How to Get a Good Start in Your New Job (illustrated ed.). Addison-Wesley. p. 32. ISBN 0201116537. 
  8. ^ Cameron, Kim S. (2011). The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship (illustrated ed.). Oxford University Press. p. 482. ISBN 0199734615. 
  9. ^ 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. 
  10. ^ "Marvin Pipkin". Schenectady Museum. Retrieved 5 September 2016. 
  11. ^ Cutler, Deborah (2005). Dictionary of Naval Terms (illustrated ed.). Naval Institute Press. p. 182. ISBN 1-59114-150-8. 
  12. ^ Joey D. Ossian (4 February 2004). A Marine's Lapse in Synapse: Part Ii: More Unbelievable, But True Short Stories. AuthorHouse. p. 96. ISBN 978-1-4140-4945-8. 
  13. ^ The Electrical Journal. Benn Bros. 1916. p. 51. Retrieved 27 July 2013. 
  14. ^ Rich, Alvin (1984). The History of the BSA. Aramco Press. p. 87. 
  15. ^ "Sports: A Game Of Inches". Retrieved 6 September 2015. 
  16. ^ "Eugene Register-Guard - Google News Archive Search". Retrieved 6 September 2015. 
  17. ^ Matej Kobza. "Kto zaváha, naletí". Retrieved 6 September 2015. 
  18. ^ "Apríl". Ž, magazín pro ženy. Retrieved 6 September 2015. 
  19. ^ Kutinová, Amálie. "Na prvního apríla". Gabra a Málinka, povedené dcerky. Jo! Obětovat moc na to nemóžu, ale šesták dám," hrabala Gabra honem v kapse. "Tu máš," povídala Málince, "a kup mně zaň ‚semosel‘. 
  20. ^ "Long Stand « David Harley's Songs". Retrieved 5 August 2014. 
  21. ^

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