An ancient word, fool certainly hasn’t lost its luster in these turbulent times. It’s interesting to note that the current use of the word—as it is often hurled, often with good cause from various social media platforms—is much more derisive than the original usage. Dating back to at least the 13th century, fool is another of those words that bridged both the French-English border and linguistic divide. The old French fol signified a madman or jester; Middle English in turn, sinner or rascal. Similar words can be found in Latin, Sanskrit, and the old Scandinavian languages.
Then of course there is fool the delightful dessert, which hails to us from England, a land that I believe suffers unwarranted—or perhaps just exaggerated—insults to its cuisine. To be fair, I have not traveled there, but I believe perfection is to be found in the custards and puddings of our motherland. A new tradition of my own is to make trifle every year for holiday gatherings—that heavenly concoction of layered ladyfingers, berries and jam, custard, and sherry. The Online Etymology Dictionary claims that trifle and fool are synonyms both in language and construction, and in my experience, there is never a shortage of tipsy friends and family willing to engage in obvious but still fun pun-making (“pity the fool” a la Mr. T., etc.).
The true ingenuity of fool—yes, I did that on purpose—is that it was yet another way our medieval forbears used what food stores were available to them during often lean winters. The cake was stale, so they soaked it in old wine. Fresh fruit was long-gone by midwinter, but if there had been a good harvest, maybe there were still preserves in the cellar. A little cream and a dash of sugar can be coaxed into a cloud of scrumptious confection by someone skilled with a whisk. Now, I’m aware that I’m a sad stand-in for a medieval housewife—I prowl the grocery stores ahead of time for ladyfingers (I’ve never succeeded at making them from scratch) so they have enough time to go stale before it’s time to make the trifle. It’s just another example of the absurdity of modern times, I guess.
The final meaning of fool I’d like to discuss is probably the most unexpected one, that is, the fool of the tarot. The fool is one of the 22 trump cards in the Major Arcana. Often dressed in rags and depicted as a troubadour, she is a young, naïve protagonist at the beginning of a journey. But the journey isn’t just one of wanderlust or some quest for prolonged youth—the fool, like any well-written protagonist, should learn and grow along her path. Although she might act impulsively, she should learn from the bad consequences of her choices.
My interest in tarot arose via an unusual path—tarot is not my preferred bridge to the spiritual or unexplained realms, but a means of studying archetypes for the purpose of better storytelling. Certainly the fool or jester is a well-known stock character, and often one of my favorites (Bender in Futurama, Charlie in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Tracy in 30 Rock). But look just a little closer, and you’ll find that there’s more to these fools than just a stock set of characteristics; they are the ones who often speak the deepest truths when no one is really paying attention.
Exhibit A: in season three of It’s Always Sunny, Charlie exclaims, “Oh, get a job? Just get a job? Why don’t I strap on my job helmet and squeeze down into a job cannon and fire off into job land, where jobs grow on jobbies?!” Truer words I’ve not heard spoken on television (at least regarding the Great Recession), so much so that during my ultra-lean-post-BA-in-philosophy-Great Recession days, when I had a massive spreadsheet tracking my multitude of job applications, my job-hunting file folder was named “Job Cannon.” It still is, actually.
But I digress, as usual. The point here is that to be a fool (or to write of one) isn’t simply a permanent character flaw like those so often handed down in the digital court of public opinion, it’s a state of being that, with hard work and the right teachers and an open heart, can and should be temporary. So here’s to all the fools, real and fictional—myself included, of course—may our winding paths and perilous journeys lead us ultimately toward our better, kinder, and wiser selves. And once we’ve crossed that boundary from the territory of our youthful wandering and our wild ways, may we dedicate ourselves to the next stage, the next archetype, which is to learn to grow older and wiser with grace, and to bestow love and compassion and wisdom to the young ones, our best beloved fools who trod that dusty path behind us.
Day, H. & Hornsby, D. (Writers), & Shakman, M. (Director). (2007). The gang sells out [Television series episode]. In Day, C., Frenkel, N., Howerton, G., McElhenney, R., Rotenberg, M. (Executive Producers), It’s always sunny in Philadelphia. Los Angeles, CA: FX.
Fool (2017, August 8). Retrieved from http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=fool&allowed_in_frame=0