Riddle Me, Riddle Me, What Is That?


The puzzle, unlike the true riddle, is stated clearly. All the facts are given, and it is up to the listener to figure them out. Essentially this type of question demands the solution of a problem, and the classic example is the problem of transporting a fox, a goose, and a basket of corn across a stream one at a time, and so arranging the transportation that the fox and goose, or the goose and corn, are never left together on either bank where the fox can eat the goose or the goose gobble the corn. This poser goes back a thousand years to the Latin of the Middle Ages, and is found also in the Meery Booke where the animals to be transported are a wolf and a lamb, and a bundle of hay instead of the corn. The solution, of course, is to take the goose over first; return for the corn; bring the goose back; carry the fox over; and return again for the goose.

The last type which flourishes in our country includes both the conundrum and trick question. These involve a play on words, puns—some of them quite terrible—and the combination of farfetched and unrelated ideas. Most of the conundrums and trick questions are modern, within the last century at least, and include incredible items such as: When is a Scotchman like a donkey? (When he walks by the banks and braes.) What is the difference between a pretty girl and a mouse? (One charms he’s, and the other harms cheese.) If a horse and wagon come to $500, what will a load of wood come to? (Ashes.) Why do Pennsylvania farmers build their pigsties between the house and the barn? (For the pigs.) If a man is born in Turkey, grows up in Italy, comes to America, and dies in Chicago, what is he? (Dead.) If you were standing beside a donkey, what kind of fruit would you represent? (A pear.) Why is there no danger of starving in a desert? (Because of the sand which is under your feet.) What do people call little gray cats in Tennessee? (Kittens.) How many hard-boiled eggs could the giant Goliath eat on an empty stomach? (One. After that his stomach would not be empty.)

While some of these conundrums and trick questions may be amusing, they are all in the long run much less absorbing than the riddles and puzzles. In the case of the true riddle, the person questioned has an excellent opportunity of solving it if he devotes himself to working out the comparison or suggested action. In the riddle “A house full, a yard full, can’t catch a bowl full,” for example, the riddler is obviously describing something which exists in great quantity but which cannot be contained in a bowl. By trying not to fill his bowl with that something, even a youngster will eventually arrive at either smoke, fog or mist, or air. With the puzzle also the problem can be worked out in time, even if it becomes necessary to use pencil and paper. With the conundrum or trick question, however, the person questioned is likely to give up quickly, since he is aware from the start that he is being unfairly tricked and that his native wit is not being questioned. From the word go, he knows that he is stooge for the trickster.

The riddle game was fun, yes. But beyond that a child was led willy-nilly into the world of analogy, the world of “this is like that,” the realm of symbolism and poetry. It is a sure bet that Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost and comparable other Americans were brought up on riddles—even as you and I.

As a starter, these objects are found in most homes. All of them are likened to the human body, yet none of the answers are to be found there: What has hands and has no fingers? What has a face, but cannot see? (For both, the answer is a clock.) What has an eye, but cannot see? (A needle.) What has teeth, but cannot eat? (A comb.) What has a head, but has no hair? (A pin, or nail.) What has legs, but cannot walk? (A chair, bed, or table.) Four fingers and a thumb, yet flesh and bones have I none. (A glove.) As long as I eat, I live, but when I drink I die. (The fire on the hearth, or any fire.)

In the world of nature, where every child once was as much at home as in his own room, there is a wide selection. From them, these: It runs as smooth as any rhyme, loves to fall, but cannot climb. (A stream or river.) It lives in winter, dies in summer, and grows with its root upwards. (An icicle.) It stands on one leg with its heart in its head. (Lettuce, or cabbage.) First you see me in the grass dressed in yellow gay, next I am in dainty white, then I fly away. (A dandelion.) Green head, yellow toes, if you don’t tell me this riddle, I’ll ring your nose. (A duck.)


What city children would make of some of these I have no idea, and certainly this quite beautiful one from Illinois would stump all but the farm youngster: I washed my hands in water that never rained or run, I wiped my hands on silk that neither was woven nor spun. (I washed my hands in dew and wiped them on corn silk.) This sharp and humorous portrait would also have them puzzled: Two lookers, two crookers, four slanders, four down-hangers, and one switch-about. (A cow.)