What is a Riddle?

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  • Originally Written By: Mary Elizabeth
  • Revised By: G. Wiesen
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 02 February 2017
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A riddle, sometimes called a "brain teaser," is usually a question that requires clever or unexpected thinking for its answer. In general conversation, someone typically presents a question to another person who accepts the challenge of guessing the correct response. The guesser may get one or multiple guesses and sometimes the asker gives clues, but this is not required. Riddles usually have only one correct answer, and it is commonly provided in the end, even if the guesser does not think of it.

Riddles with Double Meanings

The structure of a riddle typically uses one of several techniques to create a twist, which makes it difficult to guess. One common technique involves double meanings. If the double meaning is in the words of the question, then the language creates intentional confusion. The asker intends one meaning and hopes that the guesser will understand the words differently.

Here is an example: "Railroad crossing, watch out for cars; can you spell that without any r's?" In this riddle, the asker intends for the guesser to understand the word "that" as a demonstrative pronoun and try to spell "Railroad crossing, watch out for cars" without any "r"s, which is impossible. The goal is really to spell the word "that" without any "r"s; the first half of the sentence is used to make the listener confused as he or she hears the second part.


When the double-meaning word or words are not stated by the asker, the riddle may require that the listener understand it as a pun. An example of this would be "How do we know the cook was a terrible person?" The answer is: "Because he beats the eggs and whips the cream." Here, the cook's "cruelty" is understood from the multiple meanings of "beats" and "whips" as both forms of punishment and culinary techniques.

Riddles that Create False Concepts

Another method for deception in riddles involves a deliberate attempt to make a listener come to a false conclusion. Here is an example: "A woman has seven children, half of them are boys; how can this be possible?" This riddle relies on the idea that the guesser is likely to assume that if half of the children are boys, the other half must be girls; with an odd number, this is impossible. By recognizing this assumption as false, however, one can reach the correct answer: if all the children are boys, then half of them would also be boys, even though three and a half children does not normally make much sense.

Riddles with Clues

Some of the most common types of riddles have clues to the solution within them, but have to be thought about very carefully to be fully understood. One of the most famous riddles in western civilization is the Riddle of the Sphinx, commonly phrased as "What goes on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and on three legs in the evening?" The answer is "mankind," as people crawl at birth or in the morning of their lives, walk on two legs throughout the middle of their lives, and may use a cane or third leg toward the "evening" of their lives.

Riddles in Popular Culture

There are several popular formats for riddles, such as songs and games or contests of intellect. The traditional rhyme that begins, "I gave my love a cherry that had no stone," is an example of a riddle song. The contest between the hobbit Bilbo Baggins and the creature Gollum in The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien is one of the most famous riddle games in popular culture. In Batman comics, the character called "The Riddler" often stages elaborate crimes and uses riddles to give Batman clues about his capers, testing his intelligence against the hero.


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Post 5

The hardest riddles have to be chess riddles. I play chess well but I have the hardest time with riddles about chess. There is one riddle I still haven't been able to do.

The King starts at the top left and has to make 63 moves but has to land on every single square only once. The top left square doesn't count.

I've been trying to do this for years, I still haven't figured it out.

Post 4

@solomonh-- Yea, the Sphinx was an ancient creature. You must have seen pictures of the one in Egypt, it has a head of a human and a body of a lion. According to the story, the Sphinx asked the riddle mentioned in the article: "What goes on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and on three legs in the evening?"

It was a difficult riddle and many people came forward to solve it but they weren't able to and the Sphinx killed all those who gave the wrong answer. Then came, Oedipus, the King of Thebes. He solved the riddle and the Sphinx had to kill herself.

Post 3
Here's a tricky riddle for you guys:

There are three ants. The first ant says that there are two ants behind him. The second ant also says that there are two ants behind him. But they're not going in a circle. How is this possible?

Post 2

Here is one my favorite riddles: You must use U.S. coins to equal 30 cents. One of them is not a nickel. What coins do you use?

The answer: A quarter and a nickel. You see, one is a nickel and the other one is not.

Post 1

Riddles are very very old and I would love to hear examples of ancient riddles. Didn't the Sphinx tell riddles? They seems to be woven into many mythological traditions.

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