The Oxford English dictionary defines a riddle as ‘a question or statement intentionally phrased to require ingenuity in ascertaining its answer or meaning’. This definition, however, may still not have cleared up exactly what a riddle is, so here are some well-known examples:
‘What gets wetter and wetter the more it dries?’
Answer: a towel
‘What can run but never walks, has a mouth but never talks, has a head but never weeps, has a bed but never sleeps?’
Answer: a river
‘I have a tail, and I have a head, but I have no body. What am I?’
Answer: a coin
You can see from the examples above that riddles are most commonly posed as questions that often have a double meaning. Riddles are also a type of puzzle as they require a lot of thought and have, more often than not, an answer that you did not expect. This is why riddles are great for kids, as they challenge them to approach questions differently and not always go straight for the most obvious answers.
As with the second example above, riddles often rhyme and are seen as a form of poetry. Writing your puzzle can be difficult enough, so imagine how much thought, time, and attention must go into writing a riddle that rhymes!
Different types of riddle
There are two main types of riddles:
- An enigma is where a problem is proposed, and the solution is expressed metaphorically.
- A conundrum is a question that opens either the question or the answer
History of Riddles
The types of riddles in the examples above have their roots in old English poetry, specifically in the Anglo-Saxon period. It was considered a prestigious genre in Anglo-Saxon England, requiring much literary skill, wit, and intelligence to write and solve riddles.
Shakespeare was also a fan of riddles, using their characteristically symbolic and metaphorical nature in characters’ dialogue to convey feelings like love and hate in a more complex, poetic, and ethereal way.
Going further back
It’s possible to trace the origin of riddles even further back in history – there’s evidence of them being used by academics like Plato and Aristotle. Again, these riddles were regarded as having the same high-literary value as they did in Anglo-Saxon times and were used to demonstrate cunning and wisdom.