I. What is a Riddle?
A riddle is a word puzzle in which one player asks a confusing question, and the other player has to figure out its meaning. Riddles often rely on puns and double entendres – in other words, the key to solving the riddle is to realize that one of the words is being used in a surprising or unexpected way.
Riddles are sometimes called brain teasers, but this term actually refers to a broader category of thought-based games. Riddles are just one form of brain teaser, alongside crosswords, Sudoku puzzles, and even math problems (when they’re set up for fun).
The word “conundrum” is sometimes used interchangeably with “riddle,” but this is fairly unusual. In most cases, the word “conundrum” refers to a real, practical problem, rather than a game.
II. Examples of Riddle
What is iron on a horse but leather on a man?
The answer to this classic riddle is shoes. Horseshoes are made from metal, but human shoes (traditionally) were made from leather.
I have a face and two hands, but no arms or legs. What am I?
Answer: a clock. This riddle, like the previous one, works by way of a pun. When you first hear it, you probably think of a human face and hands. But once you know the answer, you realize that it’s actually clock-hands and a clock-face, which is unexpected.
What can only be used when it’s broken?
Answer: an egg. An egg is pretty useless for cooking until you break its shell.
III. The Importance of Riddles
For the most part, riddles are just games – they’re told for fun, and to pass time. In ancient societies, they were also thought of as great tests of intelligence and cleverness, and sometimes they are still used this way. The most famous example is the Riddle of the Sphinx, from Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. (See section 7 for the riddle.) In the play, the sphinx would kill anyone who failed to answer its riddle. The hero, Oedipus, is the first person to solve the riddle, thus proving his wisdom and showing himself worthy to pass by the sphinx.
In addition to being fun, riddles can also be quite useful! That’s because solving them requires you to think hard about the words involved, and this strengthens the parts of the brain that deal with language. When presented with a riddle, the brain searches through all the words and their various meanings, and solving the riddle depends on locating the combination of meanings that will unlock the puzzle – sort of like a combination lock. The more riddles you work on, the faster your brain gets at this process, which means it is getting better at processing words and ideas.
IV. Examples of Riddles in Literature
What walks on four feet in the morning, two feet in the afternoon, and three feet in the evening?
This is the “riddle of the sphinx” from Sophocles’ play Oedipus the King. This is the most famous example of a riddle being used as a test in an adventure story, but since then this trope has appeared numerous times in other books, plays, and movies. Oedipus manages to give the correct response: a man.
Why is a raven like a writing desk?
(Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland)
The Mad Hatter asks Alice to answer this riddle, but then ultimately admits that he doesn’t know the answer. Various people have suggested different answers to the riddle, but the most likely one is this: they both produce notes, but very flat ones. (A desk’s notes are written on flat paper, whereas a raven’s call is musically “flat.”) The absence of a concrete answer helps to highlight the insanity of the Mad Hatter, and many readers are baffled and frustrated by it – just as Alice herself is baffled and frustrated by the strange world she has found herself trapped in.
V. Examples of Riddles in Popular Culture
“Hungry and angry are two words that end in ‘-gry.’ What’s the third word in the English language?”
On hearing this riddle, most people try to come up with another word that ends in “-gry.” But there aren’t any. The answer to the riddle is actually “language”! The whole first sentence is misdirection, and the question actually is “What’s the third word in the English language?” Obviously, the third word in that phrase is “language.”
The riddle in Example 1 appeared once in the popular webcomic xkcd. One character tells it to another, who is not a fan of riddle-based games. In a surprise twist, the other character grows frustrated, attacks the first character, and ultimately says, “Listen carefully. Communicating badly and then acting smug when you’re misunderstood is not cleverness.” This is, in fact, exactly what a riddle is: it’s just bad, unclear communication. Yet some people, unlike the character in this comic, find riddles enjoyable.
What has roots as nobody sees,
Is taller than trees
Up, up, up it goes,
And yet never grows?
(J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit)
In the book/movie The Hobbit, Gollum challenges Bilbo Baggins to a riddle contest in order to test his intelligence. This is the first riddle in the game, and the answer is: a mountain.
VI. Related Terms
Riddles are a lot like jokes – they often begin with a confusing question, and then typically use puns to provide the answer. However, riddles are meant to be puzzled out, whereas jokes are just supposed to make people laugh. A funny riddle, though, could still be considered a joke.
A pun is the basic building block of many riddles. It’s a play on words in which a word’s multiple meanings are used for comedy or amusement. For example, the word “batter” can mean either a baseball player or a sloppy bowl of flour, eggs, and milk. Thus, the term “pancake batter” is a pun that could mean the bowl of ingredients – or a stack of pancakes that plays for a baseball team!
Sometimes, people use the word “riddle” very loosely to mean any kind of mystery. (e.g. “He never talks about himself – he’s such a riddle!”) On this definition, it’s a synonym for the word “enigma.” However, this definition is so broad that most writers prefer to avoid it, opting for the more narrow definition of riddle as a word-based game.