Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Fool’s Errand

Posted by Elyse Bruce on January 15, 2014

The old Sherlock Holmes series starring Ronald Howard (7 April 1918 – 19 December 1996) as Sherlock Holmes and Howard Marion Crawford (17 January 1914 – 24 November 1969) as Dr. Watson, oftentimes saw Holmes sending Watson on a fool’s errand to keep him out of harm’s way. The idiom was very popular years ago, but has since fallen out of favor.

African-American writer, teacher, director, actress and playwright, Eulalie Spence (June 11, 1894 – March 7, 1981) wrote and published a one-act play in 1927 entitled, “Fool’s Errand.” The play was entered in the Fifth Annual International Little Theatre Tournament, and the esteemed Samuel French, became its publisher.

In an article published by the Overland Monthly in November 1891 and entitled, “A Fool’s Errand” the subject of the resolution passed at the Immigration Convention by a vote of 112 ayes to 21 noes was taken to task. The proposition was to ask Eastern railroad companies to extend their rail lines by a thousand miles, all the way out to California. It was thought by the author that there would be no help from said companies on the basis that a decade earlier “a wild delusion prevailed that this Coast was a cradle of traffic, and that all a new road needed to earn dividends was to secure a terminus on its golden shore.”

The gentlemen who are charged with the duty of inviting Eastern railroad companies to extend their lines into this State are not to be envied. They will depart on a Fool’s Errand.

American author, lawyer and judge, Albion Winegar Tourgée (2 May 1838 – 21 May 1905) wrote and published “A Fool’s Errand: By One Of The Fools” in 1879.  As a member of the 27th New York Infantry during the Civil War, his novel was based on his experiences in North Carolina after the war during the Reconstruction period, as well as his experiences as a carpetbagger.

When the book was republished in 1962, the North Carolina Historical Review wrote stated that it was a “significant and unusually original portrayal, criticism, and analysis of postwar southern society” and that the story offered “excitement, idealism, and romance.” Of note is the fact that this novel was originally published just two months after he had published another book entitled, “Figs and Thistles” and according to The Literary Digest of June 1905, publishing two novels in quick succession as he had done, made Albion Tourgée a “genuine sensation throughout the country.”

In John Jamieson’s four-volume tome, “Dr. Jamieson’s Scottish Dictionary And Supplement In Four Volumes” published in 1841, the idiom was found under the entry Gowk’s Errand where the author wrote that Gowk’s errand was the same as to hunt the gowk, which meant to go on a fool’s errand. John Jamieson then added:

Both expressions signify, that one is intentionally sent from place to place on what is known to be a wild-goose chase. The first, although equivalent to a fool’s errand, does not seem immediately to originate from gowk, as denoting a foolish person, but from the bird which bears this name.

Finding it John Jamieson’s dictionary in 1841 indicates that people of the period had an understanding of the idiom, its meaning, and its usage. And indeed it was as it appeared in an earlier work by John Jamieson published in his two-volume tome published in 1808, entitled, “An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language: Illustrating The Words In Their Different Significations, By Examples From Ancient And Modern Writers.”

Jumping back to 1736, a fool’s errand appears in the “Dramatick Works of George Farquhar In Two Volumes” in Act III, Scene iv of the play, “The Constant Couple, or, A Trip To The Jubilee.” The idiom is used twice in this play, with this being the best example of how it’s used.

CLIN:
Speak, you Rogue. What are you?

ERRA:
A poor Porter, Sir, and going of an Errand.

DICK:
What Errand? Speak you Rogue.

ERRA:
A Fool’s Errand, I’m afraid.

CLIN:
Who sent you?

ERRA:
A Beau, Sir.

And traveling back to 1616, the idiom is found in the book “The Fall Of Man, or the Corruption of Nature Proved By The Light Of Our Natural Reason” by the Anglican Bishop of Gloucester, Godfrey Goodman (28 February 1582 – 19 January 1656). At the time, naive simpletons were referred to as fools and as such, sending one on a fool’s errand was sure to yield no results at all … or none that would prove useful. Oftentimes, it was said that a fool had been sent on a sleeveless errand.

Indeed, in a book by John Heywood (1497 – 1580) published in 1563, entitled, “The Proverbs, Epigrams, and Miscellanies of John Heywood” the definition of a sleeveless errand is explained thusly:

… a sleeveless (= objectless, wanting cover or excuse, fruitless, fool’s) errand

The word fool in the 1500s was from the verb foolify which meant “to make a fool of” and based on the fact that the word foolify is from this era, it stands to reason that a fool’s errand would also be from that same time period, especially in light of the fact that it was used to define “sleeveless errand” in John Heywood’s dictionary published in 1563. Idiomation therefore feels it is reasonable to peg the first use of the expression fool’s errand to the turn of the century in 1500.

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