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What Is a Riddle?

Riddles are ancient, yet they still intrigue us. Here's why.

Riddles originate at the dawn of human history. There is no culture without riddle traditions and no period of time that has not produced its own particular types of riddles. Moreover, regardless of language or culture, riddles are based on the same type of themes and social functions, from sphinxes who destroy those who cannot answer riddles to tricky plays on words for the fun of it.

We tend to see riddles as certain kinds puzzles today. The ancients certainly did not. They perceived them to constitute a kind of divinatory or prophetic speech. However, even in antiquity, not all riddling traditions had such mystical functions. The Greeks used riddles not only for prophetic reasons, but also at banquets, as we might do even today at social gatherings, for the purposes of recreation. The Romans made riddles a central aspect of their Saturnalia festivities, which they celebrated over the winter solstice. This dual function of riddles, as prophetic speech and as recreational word-play, extended throughout the medieval and Renaissance periods. Only by the eighteenth century did riddles lose their mythic function, becoming perceived almost exclusively as forms of word-play.

Riddles pose a question whose answer is not direct or obvious, much like many tricky puzzles in logic or mathematics. As such, they are indeed puzzles, but of a very special kind, since they involve metaphor and other associative aspects of language. As research has shown, the figurative and extended meanings of words activate right-hemisphere functions in tandem with left-hemisphere ones. Since riddles are essentially extended metaphors—an idea that goes right back to Aristotle—then it is not a stretch to claim that they are “whole-brain” activating devices (pardon my metaphor). In a phrase, riddles are good for the brain.

In previous writing, I tried to classify riddles into five main categories: (1) double-entendre riddles, (2) idiom riddles, (3) charade riddles, (4) palindrome riddles, (5) miscellaneous riddles.

Double entendre refers to a word or phrase subject to two (or more) interpretations. For example, the word play can refer to engagement in physical activities or games for enjoyment as in We play poker every once in a while; or to a theatrical work as in I love all of Shakespeare’s plays. Idioms are expressions whose meaning cannot be determined on the basis of their constituent words. For example, the word laugh occurs in idioms such as laugh in someone’s face (“to show contempt for someone”) and laugh out of the other side of one’s mouth (“to feel embarrassed after feeling satisfaction wrongly about something”). A charade plays on the meaning of a word (or expression) in terms of its separate syllables. For example, if the required answer is baseball, the charade riddle might play on the syllables base and ball, as follows: This sport has two syllables, with the first one referring to a “stand” that is part of the game and the second to the “hard sphere” required to play it. The "stand" corresponds to base and the "sphere" to ball. A palindrome is a word, phrase, or sentence that reads the same backward or forward, with adjustments to punctuation and spacing if needed. For example, the word toot is a word that can be read forward or backward. There is nothing special about a palindrome riddle other than the fact that the answer is a palindrome. The miscellaneous category is a bit of an evasion on my part—I simply could not find any more ways to further subdivide riddles. I will leave it at that.

The ten riddles that I include here are overlapping ones—that is, they may fall into one or other of the above rubrics. As in previous blogs, if you come up with different answers from mine, I welcome you to send them on to me.

Ten Tricky Riddles

1. It can involve hallucination or a journey. What is it?

2. It is calm at the center of this; but it also allows for viewing to occur. What is it?

3. They afford protection in cold weather; but if you take them off you are bound to be in some kind of conflict. What are they?

4. Chasing this wild animal leads nowhere. What animal is that?

5. It is not an object, but if it is broken, it can cause sadness. What is it?

6. If it is hot, then you are faced with a difficult situation; if it is a chip then it is pleasurable in a guilty way. What is it?

7. Here’s a charade for you: it goes through the “atmosphere” in a “level” way. What is it?

8. It is the name of a famous personage in literary history, and it is a palindrome of a common English grammatical word. What is it?

9. It goes up and down both in the body and outside. What is it?

10. Holding it in your hand, shows humility; taking it off, shows admiration. What is it?


1. Trip: In hippie jargon, a “mind trip” is produced by taking hallucinatory drugs; and a trip is a kind of journey.

2. Eye: The “eye of the storm” is the calm at the center of a storm, while the eye itself allows for viewing to occur, of course.

3. Gloves: Wearing gloves protects us from the cold, and the expression “take the gloves off” means that we are ready for conflict.

4. Goose: The idiom “to be on a wild goose chase” implies that someone is foolishly pursuing something unattainable.

5. Heart: A “broken heart” is an expression referring to the experience of sadness or sorrow.

6. Potato: A “hot potato” is a controversial issue or a situation that is problematic; a “potato chip” is a guilty pleasure, isn’t it?

7. Airplane: air = atmosphere; plane = level

8. Anna: Anna is the name of the protagonist in Leo Tolstoy's masterpiece novel, Anna Karenina; if the name is split into syllables it can be interpreted as the English indefinite article written forward (An) and backward (na). Anna is a palindrome.

9. Temperature: Body temperature goes up and down, as does the weather outside.

10. Hat: The expression “hat in hand” denotes an attitude of humility; to “take one’s hat off indicates admiration of someone.

More from Marcel Danesi Ph.D.
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