A "Fools Errand" is the practical joke of sending a person to fetch some non-existent but plausible sounding item. The joke is usually played at work on a new employee or apprentice and its effectiveness depends on the naivete of the victim. Here are some of the more common Fools Errands. There are hundreds of such errands; many are specific to particular occupations. Many of the objects are non-existent items. Others really do exist, but not in the context of the occupation where they are set as a fool's errand e.g. fallopian tubing makes sense to a doctor, but not to a plumber. Many errands rely on an apprentice being overwhelmed by technical jargon; as long as the errand or object sounds plausible, he assumes it to be yet more jargon.

2 by 4 stretcher
10ft of fallopian tube
10 metres of <commercial air name> air-line
100m of flightline
A5 Continuation sheets (secretarial: if it's too big for A5, you use A4)
A bee-line
AC battery
Adjustable needle-nose pliers
Ants' milk
Articulated Gyrogorphotor (10,000 value and lost/stolen!) (assumed to be a fools errand)
A runaround (sent all over the place; "runaround" is also slang for a beat-up but reliable car)
Bar stretchers
Basin Trials (get Junior sailor watching the basins in the bathrooms for any leaks prior to sailing)
Battery for the dynamo flashlight
Bearing grease for the Radio Compass/Tacan/VOR etc.
Big weight/wait (same effect as a long wait)
Binnacle Alignment Tool (naval)
Bird food for the cuckoo in the cuckoo clock
Bit bucket for the bits lost when the computer system crashes
Blinker fluid/indicator fluid (car mechanics)
Box of grid squares
Box of sparks for spark plugs
Box of tappet clearances
Box of topo (civil engineering, "Topo" is a Japanese snack-food)
BT Punch (naval - popular on ships with 1200 lb. plants, and huge knuckle-dragging BTs; don't specify whether to ask for the left or right punch; a smart HT will suggest taking both "just to be sure")
Bubbles for spirit levels
Bucket of steam
Bucket of compressed air
Can of blue steam
Can of squelch (when target returns empty-handed, "remember" it now comes in spray cans not tin cans)
Canopy lights (air force)
Cans of Water Slugs (naval)
Check/Czech paint
Chem-Light batteries (air force)
Compass Oil
Compass wrench
Copper magnet
Coriolus effect technician (IT) - to check direction the token on token ring network is travelling
Coriolus effect watch, in order to determine when you have crossed the equator. Coriolus effect is which way water circles the plughole! (naval)
Coupon rake (banking)
Cranking down the mast (naval)
Crocodile Milk
Curve stretcher (civil engineering)
Cyrillic Pencil
Data packets
Deicer for the level
DF Bearing Grease (naval)
Dry water
Elbow grease
e.m.h.o. log (naval: early morning hard on)
Find Charley Noble (galley smoke stack) (USN 1950s)
Find the Golden Rivet (naval - the golden rivet was supposedly the last rivet installed and located in the shaft alley)
Find the spilt token (computing - when a token ring network cable is unplugged, can end up with everyone on hands and knees searching!)
Fire warmer
Flux capacitor (only to be found in a sci-fi movie)
Frequency grease (if the radar sounds too squeaky), if the new guy brings anything back it's low frequency grease and you needed high frequency grease
Gig Line (naval)
Glass axe
Glass hammer
Glass magnet
Gnat's Milk
Gnat Tit Ointment
Grape grater
Green oil for the starboard lamp (naval)
Hard punch
Holes for hole punches
Horizontal tentpegs
Hose Stretchers
Howitzer report (ordnance)
ID-ten-T form (ID-10T - popular in armed forces)
Jet Blast Compound (aviation)
Key to the vapour lock
Keys to the drop zone (air force)
K9P Cutting Fluid
Learning curve (draughtsman)
Left-handed box-end wrench
Left-handed gavel (auctioneer's mallet)
Left-handed monkey wrench
Left-handed paint roller
Left-handed punch/right-handed punch (these errands are painful)
Left handed screwdriver
Left-handed smokeshifter
Left-handed tablespoon
Liquid magnet
Long drop
Long stand ("long stands" exist in the clothing industry)
Long weight  (storesman goes away for a while to "look" on his return he says "was that long enough?")
Mercury rods/discs (mercury is liquid at room temperature)
Metric adjustable wrenches (in metric countries: Imperial adjustable wrenches)
MIL-TFD-1111 (mythical military/engineering standard: "Make It Like - The F**king Drawing" - For Once)
Money changing for Gibraltar - "If you're going ashore you better go and cash a cheque for your Giblets" (naval)
New cursor for the computer (IT)
New tokens for the Token Ring network (computing)
Newton's Rings for the camera (Newton's Rings are a light interfence pattern)
Non-conductive cardboard
Ooievaarskuitenvet (The Netherlands - storks' calves' fat)
Pachyderm trunking
Peedo-file (on a written chit - pronounced "paedophile")
Pink paraffin for the night lights (red bulbs!, naval)
Podger, for aligning holes (in some circles, this exists)
Pot dividers (kitchen staff)
Polka-dot paint
Post-hole key (on a race track)
PRC-E7 ("prick E7") (PRC "prick" is military radio, but E7 is a grade of sergeant; PRC-E7 = "prick sergeant" not a type of radio)
Prop Wash (aviation)
Rearrange the 6-ply (6 colored sheets with 5 carbons to put in reverse order)
Recharge the escape arrows with a torch (naval)
Recharger for the sound-powered phone batteries
Relative Bearing Grease for the compass
Requisition the Supply Officer for 1000 Gas Tight Envelopes (armed forces)
Ring centres (essentially these are paper punchouts/chads)
Roll of film for the digital Camera
Rubber mallet (rubber-headed panel-beating mallets exist)
Sauerkraut seed
Sending a sailor to "pilot" the missile (naval)
Sending new techs at a CommSta hunting for a spool of Red Order Wire to do some repairs (naval)
Sending someone to Engineering Control to report, "Sir, High level alarm in the cooling system, request permission to blow the MPA" (naval)
Sending someone to the Chiefs' mess to turn off their lights when "darken ship" is piped (naval)
Sending someone to the galley to get some oil boiled when the Petty Officer requests boiled oil. Linseed oil is "double boiled" so it can be sent back with the fool saying "you've only boiled this once" (naval)
Shelf expander (expanding shelves really do exist)
Shore line stretcher
Siren Winders (fire/ambulance service)
Skyhooks (items by this name have since been invented for aviation use)
Snake oil
Snipe Hunt (scouts/military, a night-time communal fools' errand)
Socket for round nuts
Some electricity (usually the fool is sent away form stores with a battery)
Some snew (fool usually asks "What's snew?" [what's new?])
Sonar grease (for when it sounds a bit "squeaky")
Sound powered phone batteries (naval)
Spare smoke canister for when the smoke (that runs the computer/other electrical kit) escapes
Sparks for the fire
Sparks for the grinder
Spark samples from the angle grinder
Squilgee Sharpener (naval)
Stand mail buoy watch (naval)
Stand Monkey Watch while sailing past Gibraltar (included a broomstick and a hard hat)
Striped Paint
Tartan paint
Tartan yarn (wool)
Tuning pipe for a fog horn
The lost document file
Virtual ram for the computer network server
Water Hammer (this is the banging sound made in water pipes)
Waveguide stretcher (radar operators)
White ink for the inkjet printer
Winter grade air for winter tyres
Wiremesh watering can
Yard of chow line (military)
Yard of shoreline


On TV, green-screen used to be called colour separation overlay "CSO" (where a person filmed against a green background is transposed onto a scene). BBC staff sometimes played a prank on novices. After shooting their first first CSO scene, an embarrassed-looking cameraman would ask the actor if anyone had told him/her that they needed to wear special CSO underwear to avoid "revelations". The embarrassed actor would rush off to the costume department to demand the (completely fictional) underwear, only to be met by other cast members and crew laughing at the prank.

New students at certain posh British colleges were urged very seriously to leave a urine sample outside the Principal's Office on arrival. No containers were provided, resulting in a surreal element to this prank/errand.

In the clothing industry, a "long stand" is a genuine item for a 5thread overlocker industrial sewing machine.

At one firm, office juniors got sent to pick up the sandwiches from the snack bar and the order would contain "with an extra helping of beef curtains" (slang for labia)

Another favourite was to tell some naive apprentice that the small metal files were called peedo-files and send them off to stores "can I have a paedophile please?"

Junior kitchen hands in seafront hotels would get sent round neighbouring hotels to ask for "a bucket of seawater" to test their initiative - with the sea only a few metres away .... Asking them to locate the chocolate teapot was another one (hot tea melts chocolate!)

There is also "the box of punch holes to fill in accidentally punched holes in paper" (from secretarial days)

Somewhere I have the "official memo" asking people to unplug their phones so we can de-fluff the phone lines. As soon as the site fire-alarm test sounded everyone must blow down their end of the phone cable to blow all the fluff into the exchange room to be swept up. It is amazing how many fools complied.

One I did in my SysOp days: the laser printer jammed and "evil Edna" (an older secretary, not computer literate) pulled the network cable out of the printer. SysOps convinced her that individual characters are sent down the wire and there must be a pile of spilled characters on the floor. The cleaners were not
particularly diligent in the printer areas, so there was a mess of spilled toner and paper dust on the floor. We didn't think evil Edna would actually try to scoop the stuff into the network cable! Perhaps Evil Edna should have heeded the following advice from an IT tech: "There are two kinds of bits, zero bits and one bits. One bits are heavier than air, and fall to the floor. If anyone sees a pile of one bits, the cleaner gets the blame for not sweeping the floor. Zero bits are lighter than air. They float upward and cling to the ceiling tiles. Once you have enough bits, which isn't hard at 10 million per second, the cloud of zero bits looks just like cigarette smoke and since this is a no-smoking office you're in big trouble."

When crossing the equator on a vessel with a computer installation, you need to send an IT tech to see if the token (on token ring network) stops rotating ON the equator and if it starts to rotate in the opposite direction in the other hemisphere.

What about MIL-TFD-1111 ? In companies building military kit, this is the "international standard" someone is sent to fetch/read/research if they bodge a job. MIL-TFD-1111 stands for "Make It Like - The F***ing Drawing - 4 Ones (for once)"; a variation is MIL-TFD-4111.

When one correspondent worked in one particular school, a small group of teachers had a scheme worked out so they could get rid of someone for a while. The teacher sent them to another class for the "red book". When the student got there, they would be referred to another teacher across the other side of the school. Collaborating teachers had a little circuit worked out so that the unfortunate would walk quite a distance before finally being directed back to the original class. By that time, either class was over and they become someone else's problem, or they had cooled down and behaved for the rest of the lesson.

12ft vernier with fast trav'  (with apologies to non-engineers who don't understand this and who probably won't understand the explanation - a "vernier caliper gauge" aka a "guessing stick" or a "near-as-dammit stick" is a measuring tool used to measure in hundreds of a millimetre or thousands of an inch, and the biggest one made is about 12" long. As for the "fast trav", that would be found on lathes and milling machines.)

One apprentice was given a folded requisition slip by his boss and told 'Go and get this from the Tool Stores for me, please.' It was not an unusual request so off he went and handed it in without reading it. He stood there for about 10 minutes until the storeman came back and said 'We haven't got any - try Goods Inwards'. this made me suspicious, so he opened the requisition and it said : 'A long stand'. In a similar tale, the apprentice was sent from one department to another until he finally read the requisition slip, he had been sent to get the runaround!

One correspondent used to be a waitress in a well known chain.  All new starters used to either asked to water the plants (they were all artificial), or asked to draw the curtains - which were only for show so didn't even have rail attached!  And some naive appos (apprentices) from local ordnance stores were sent in to ask the waitress if she had "beef curtains" (slang for labia).

There is a drawing (i.e. circuit diagram on microfilm) in the library at one aero-engineering site that contains a picture of a cartoon character on it. An apprentice is told to go and fetch the a certain drawing from the print-room and is handed a microfilm printout of a cartoon!

Another chap sent a fellow apprentice to the stores for a box of square waves. Being a bit savvy, he came back with a box of curly polystyrene packing pieces, emptied them over the super's desk and said that they didn't have any square waves, would these sine waves do instead!

Richard Jeffery of BAE SYSTEMS recalls a fools errand from his days in the Royal Navy. "The Royal Navy had countless tricks, I can only remember two well organized ones: "The coxswain for towed target practice"  where newly recruited seamen were asked to volunteer to steer the targets that were towed off the back of ships; and "The Malta dog shoot" (which Richard nearly fell for) - Malta being a regular port of call, when days before a ship was due in Malta, signs and letters would go up on notice boards claiming an outbreak of wild dogs on The Island and volunteers were asked to go on a hunt to shoot them. Volunteers had to sign up on notice board.

Some people manage to take hours, or even days, off work while searching vainly for sky hooks, tartan paint, stop bits for the ethernet or the tuning pipe for the foghorn. There's also the mythical punishment of sailors being told off to chip paint with rubber hammers; something on a par with army punishments of trimming the lawn with nail scissors or scrubbing the toilets with a toothbrush.

A Dutch junior clerk took a taxi (instead of the usual bike) to go fetch a coupon rake (a heavy and unwieldy piece of iron given to him by another branch of the bank, something impossible to cycle with!)

Siren winder: some fire stations give the target a large fake key and watch him search in vain for a winding hole on the fire engine. Fire engine sirens are electrical.

New dealers at casino card tables might be sent for a left-handed shoe or some shoe grease. A "shoe" is the case from which playing cards are dealt one at a time)

From "Sean": Back in the days before outsourcing, we maintenance blokes borrowed a couple of mechanical engineering apprentices to help us move a large transformer out of the generator building. This entailed the use of rollers under the damn thing. I joked to my colleague that the rollers method was how ancient Egyptians used to move transformers. One of the mech. apprentices immediately went "Wow! I didn't know ancient Egyptians used transformers!" (We half-persuaded him that ancient Egyptians had electro-plated the pyramids before he sussed the joke)

A road ganger was asked to fetch a "roadside plane" (supposedly used for levelling roadsides) and being more than usually diligent he discovered that something of that name really existed, so he hired it. It cost the firm 200 a day in hire fees! Another fool's errand misfired when a diligent junior engineer located a "long stand" (part of an industrial sewing machine) and ordered one; luckily no-one has yet bought an old, cheap car when sent for a "runaround".

A trainee chemist shop assistant was left to man the counter alone. He was almost immediately asked by a "customer" (actually a colleague) to find a jar of Gnat Tit Ointment. Days later when he is once more alone at the counter, another customer asks him for mothballs. The trainee responded "Mothballs? Who do you think you're fooling?''

There is also the tale of the compass wrench, an item many Dutch sailors have searched for in vain. The trainee navigator is told that the compass needs adjusting and to fetch the compass wrench from the engine room. On one luxury liner the engineers hoisted an enormous 50 kg, 1 metre long wrench onto the shoulders of the trainee who had to stagger up a 30 metre oil-covered stairway. The prank backfired when one trainee became so angry at learning it was a prank that he dumped the "compass wrench" overboard. A similar tale is told of the tuning pipe for the foghorn, another unwieldy prank item also kept in an inconvenient place.

"You always manage to get plenty of volunteers for the lucrative job of 'Splash Target Coxswain' although a few drop out during training once they realise it's a bite!" "Larne/Splash target Cox'n has to be a favourite, the fun is actually in getting the candidates to do the training (in dry bag , Goggles, rigging set, Assault troop lifejacket and yellow surcoat)".

"One long boring patrol we organized the SPCWS (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Water Slugs), complete with protest signs, petitions, and a sit-in held in the Torpedo Room." It seems that plenty of fools joined that one.

Send a private to look of "soft spots" on an armoured vehicle by tapping it with a ball pein hammer (a hardened hammer). This results in a vehicle covered in lots of dents, all marked with chalk. Also done in the car trade. Note: use a vehicle which has already been designated as scrap!

From Geoff Cashman: I was in the USN Reserves way back when...the unit I was in spent two weeks aboard USS Briscoe, a Sprucan. We were doing circles off the Virginia Capes, various drills etc., with midshipmen onboard. One particular fellow in our unit, Seaman White, was not the sharpest tool in the shed. I was on the bridge on watch, with the ship riding in a fairly gentle quartering sea, winds around 20kts. We saw some deck apes on the forecastle with Seaman White, dressed in foulies and a harness of some sort. They attached a line to him, and sent him up to the prow of the ship with a boat hook, and ran the line back to the position they took up inside the superstructure. The XO, who had the con, saw what was happening and ordered the ship into the wind. Seaman White then had apparent wind over the bow at around 25kts or so, with a medium rain and the bow of the ship dancing around a bit. The skipper, who had been sacked out at the time, came onto the bridge. He walked up to the windows on the forward bulkhead and asked, "What the hell is he doing up there?". The XO calmly replied, "Mail buoy watch sir". The skipper muttered "Jesus Christ" under his breath and stomped off the bridge.

Greg Surratt added: We did the same thing with a new ensign. Best part was when Boats took a canvas mail sack full of trash back aft and dipped it in the drink, then took it to the bow and gave it to the mail buoy watch, chewing his ass for "missing" the mail as we passed by, and including a stern lecture (with a straight face, no less) on how to stand a proper watch. Then Boats made him bring the bag to the bridge and report to the OOD the recovery of the ship's mail. 

Bob May writes: You can mark off the "Bucket of Steam" as one that got done. In 1968 I got assigned to the USS Truxtun (DLGN-35) as a Second Class Fire Control Tech Missiles. This was my first real sea-duty and the Chief in charge of my area decided to have some fun with me. He asked me to get a bucket of steam. So I went and got him a bucket of steam by the following procedure. I went to the supply locker and got a bucket. Then I took that bucket to the machine shop where I had the machinist cut a piece of steel to fit the top of the bucket and then drill and tap two holes in it for fittings. I then took that to the welding shop and had the top welded onto the bucket and then tested it for airtightness. Following that was a trip to the boilermakers for fittings and the filling of the bucket with steam from the reactor. Took that to the Chief and he was a bit amazed by the experience of actual steam coming out of the faucet when he opened it! I might also add another one that gets the sailors - a Waterline Eraser. All ships have a waterline (that's where the water level is on the hull) and it's kind of difficult to get a "waterline eraser". About the only way that you can do that is to put the ship in a dry-dock.


Several denizens of sci.military. naval pointed out the fun to be had in getting inexperienced staff to make the following shipboard announcements ("pipes"):
"D'ya hear there, No smoking - no naked lights on the weather decks - H2O spillage" (After a rain storm)
"D'Ya hear there, The Sports store is now open, all Tennis rackets are to be returned to the PTI and Balls to the Master at Arms"
"Hot pies are now being issued from the main galley" Most effective when made at standeasy and guaranteed to impress the overworked Cabbage mechanics!
"RO Tate report to the Hangar"
"REM Brantd report to the Paint store"
"Seaman Stains report to Laundry"
"e.m.h.o report. Time up 0600. Time Down 0620. 6 inches." (e.m.h.o is early morning hard on [erection])
"Pass the word, status is IC2 Balls"

From TJ: LRPCs = Little Round Paper Circles (not a fool's errand, but a game to play with fools)
LRPC is the original term I heard for what is now called chad. Difference seems to be that LRPCs came from hole punches and chad came from punched paper tape. The use of either was as follows:
Day 1: Get styrofoam cup. Punch out bottom. Put on desk of target. Fill with chad/LRPCs. Target picks up cup saying something like: Hey, wadda fug is dis? Chad/LRPCs leak out all over the place (also called a "Chad bomb")
Day 2 for same target: Glue a cardboard circle about 1/2 inch below rim of cup (false bottom). Cover circle with glue and cover with chad/LRPCs. Put on desk. Target will cuss (of course) while trying to edge the cup off the desk without spilling anything thru the assumed hole (yesterday's lesson of punched out bottom). Nothing falls out. Target usually tips cup, and nothing falls out. Target tosses cup with more 'colorful metaphors.'
Day 3 for same target: Remove cardboard circle/get new cup with bottom punched out. Fill with loose chad as in day 1. Target will cuss (of course) while trying to edge the cup off the desk without spilling anything thru the assumed hole. Will then forget what's going on and toss it or tip it over thus spilling the chad all over.

Sarah H added: Part fill one 35mm film canister with chads/punchouts. Put lid back on. Lift lid just enough so you can squirt "freezer spray" into the container. Put lid back on tightly. Leave on target's desk in unobtrusive place. Depending on office temperature, in around 10 minutes the freezer spray (no longer under pressure) will have expanded enough to pop the top off the film canister and paper punchouts explode everywhere. The confetti effect is amusing, as is the target finding punchouts in his work area forever after.

Jim: slightly messier version: Freeze a couple of cans of shaving cream in liquid Nitrogen for a few minutes, then carefully remove the can from the frozen contents with tin snips etc. Place cylinder of solid cream for best effect and just wait for the temp to come up. Really impressive how much stuff fits in that little can.

You can make an extraordinary effective stink bomb by freezing a clove of garlic in liquid nitrogen. Toss it into the place where the effect is to be, and it will shatter to fine powder. When it warns up, all the garlic oil gets released at once.

Water-filled desk: First thing in morning, target had tendency to noisily and viciously pull his drawer (very wide shallow drawer) out suddenly, grunt when whatever he sought was not visible and then slam drawer shut. Early one morning we emptied drawer, lined it with plastic sheet and carefully filled it with water before sliding drawer shut. Target arrived, viciously yanked out drawer, water went first to back of drawer and before target could register what was happening, a tidal wave went over his legs. The rest of us were wearing white rubber boots or other protective clothing - something which raised no suspicions when working in a chemical laboratory - and were able to view the events at close quarters while remaining dry. Target never mistreated desk drawers again.

Police Line tape: We had some construction going on in the parking lot and some parts were marked off with POLICE LINE tape. They borrowed some traffic cones and connected them with borrowed tape and put it around some poor guy's car and printed a very official looking sign: POLICE TEST: DO NOT DISTURB. The guy came out after work to find his car marked off and was of a gullible disposition. Finally worked up the nerve to call security to ask when he could have his car back.


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