The issue here is the placement of the apostrophe. Should the apostrophe be placed before the 's': as in, April Fool's Day. Or after the 's': as in, April Fools' Day.
Both spellings, it turns out, are correct. Or rather, neither spelling is demonstrably wrong. Valid arguments can be made for both. So for the foreseeable future, we shall doubtless continue to see both forms used.
However, "April Fool's Day" is the more popular spelling, and arguably has the better case for being correct, which is why that's the version used here on the Museum of Hoaxes. But let's review the arguments for both options.
April Fools' Day
The case for April Fools' Day rests on the assumption that the phrase refers to all fools in general. Therefore, to indicate the plural form, the apostrophe must come after the 's'.
Proponents of this spelling point to All Fools' Day, which is an alternative (now archaic) term for the celebration. Because All Fools is clearly plural, we might assume that April Fools is also so.
A number of authorities, including Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Macmillan Dictionary, Encyclopedia Britannica, and Wikipedia use this spelling.
April Fool's Day
However, if the fool in April Fool's Day is singular, then, of course, the apostrophe has to be placed before the 's'. And proponents of this spelling offer a variety of arguments why April Fool probably is singular.
For instance, the term could refer to the April Fool who becomes the victim of a prank. Or perhaps it derives from the cry of "April Fool" by a prankster, after a prank succeeds. Or perhaps it denotes the April Fool (that mythic character dressed in a multi-colored tunic and horned hat) who serves as the primary symbol of the day everywhere except in French-speaking countries, where a fish serves as the symbol.
An analogy could also be made with Mother's Day and Father's Day, both of which take a singular form. If they refer to a single mother and father, why shouldn't April Fool's Day refer to a single fool?
However, the strongest argument for "April Fool's Day" comes from an examination of the historical evolution of the phrase, which suggests that the April Fool was originally intended to be singular.
During the eighteenth century and into the first half of the nineteenth century, the April 1 celebration was usually called All Fools' Day. Or people would speak more long-windedly of the "custom of making April fools" on the first of April.
It was only in the mid-nineteenth century that the phrase "April Fool Day" regularly began to appear in print. (A few earlier instances of it can be found). But in this early usage, the phrase was almost always written without any 's' at all, as a singular word, no apostrophe anywhere.
Throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century, "April Fool Day" rapidly became the preferred usage, eclipsing All Fools' Day. But simultaneously, over the course of that half century, an 's' began to be appended to the word 'fool' more often, until, by the dawn of the twentieth century, the phrase had transformed into "April Fool's Day".
It should be acknowledged that, from the start, there was very little consistency in the placement of the apostrophe. Confusion seemed to reign. Some late nineteenth-century writers spelled the phrase "April Fools' Day," doubtless influenced by the precedent of All Fools' Day. And some writers covered their bets by using a variety of spellings (April Fool Day, April Fools' Day, and April Fool's Day) all in the same article.
But overall, it seems clear that the phrase "April Fool Day" evolved into "April Fool's Day," and that "April Fools' Day" was always a relatively minor variant. For example, if one does a word search in the historical databases of the Los Angeles Times
, New York Times
, and Washington Post
, one finds that between 1880 and 1920 "April Fool's Day" had already become the preferred spelling, appearing 130 times in those years, versus a mere 36 appearances of "April Fools' Day" and another 36 uses of "April Fool Day".
Among word authorities, the Oxford English Dictionary lists "April Fool's Day" as the correct spelling, citing the precedent of "April Fool Day". It's worth noting that the OED appears to be the only dictionary that offers a justification for its spelling of the celebration. Other dictionaries simply list a spelling, without explaining how or why they chose it.
The Oxford English Dictionary's listing for "April Fool's Day"
Throughout the 20th century, and into the 21st, "April Fool's Day" has consistently been the more popular spelling. A search for books and movies with the phrase "April Fool" in the title, shows that a majority use the "April Fool's Day" spelling. Notable among these titles is The Guardian Book of April Fool's Day
(Aurum Press, 2007), which is the only English-language book ever published about the history of April Fool's Day, and therefore holds some weight as an authority on the subject.
It's very likely that the popularity of the spelling "April Fool's Day" has nothing to do with the historical precedent of "April Fool Day." Instead, it probably derives from a widespread dislike of hanging apostrophes. People feel that they look awkward and avoid them whenever possible.
On the other hand, one suspects that the continuing persistence of "April Fools' Day" may be due to the fact that, in the minds of some, this use of a hanging apostrophe must be correct precisely because it looks more awkward
However, as noted at the beginning, neither spelling is demonstrably wrong. Therefore, whatever way one chooses to spell the phrase is ultimately a matter of personal choice. In fact, reverting to "April Fool Day" may be the safest choice, since it avoids the apostrophe controversy entirely.