The practice of playing tricks on other people on the first of April arose in Europe and crossed the channel to Britain in the late seventeenth century. No one is certain why April first is associated with pranks, and there are numerous conjectures, but since none have any strong evidence supporting them, I won’t list them here.
The earliest known use of the phrase April fool in English is in William Congreve’s 1693 play The Old Batchelour (1.1.5):
That’s one of Loves April-fools, is always upon some errand that’s to no purpose.
But this is a general reference to a man smitten with love, rather than the victim of a prank. But within a two decades we have references to the practice, witnessed by Joseph Addison in the pages of The Spectator in 1711:
An ingenious Tribe of Men [...] who are for making April Fools every Day in the Year. These Gentlemen are commonly distinguished by the name of Biters.
And Adam Fitz-Adam refers to April Fool’s Day in his 1753 book The World:
No wise man will tell me that it is not as reasonable to fall out for the observance of April-fool-day.
Source: The Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd edition, “April fool, n.,” September 2008.
Copyright 1997-2013, by David Wilton