AskDefine | Define riddle

Dictionary Definition



1 a difficult problem [syn: conundrum, enigma, brain-teaser]
2 a coarse sieve (as for gravel)


1 pierce many times; "The bullets riddled his body"
2 set a difficult problem or riddle; "riddle me a riddle"
3 separate with a riddle, as grain from chaff [syn: screen]
4 speak in riddles
5 explain a riddle

User Contributed Dictionary




  1. a verbal puzzle, mystery, or other problem of an intellectual nature.
  2. a sieve




  1. to fill with holes
    The shots from his gun began to riddle the target.
  2. to fill or spread throughout; to pervade
    Your argument is riddled with errors.
  3. to solve, answer, or explicate a riddle or question
    Riddle me this...., meaning Answer the following question.
  4. to put something through a sieve
    You have to riddle the gravel before you lay it on the road.


to fill with holes
to fill or spread throughout; to pervade
to solve, answer, or explicate a riddle or question
to put something through a sieve

Extensive Definition

A riddle is a statement or question having a double or veiled meaning, put forth as a puzzle to be solved. Riddles are of two types: enigmas, which are problems generally expressed in metaphorical or allegorical language that require ingenuity and careful thinking for their solution, and conundrums, which are questions relying for their effects on punning in either the question or the answer.


Riddles occur extensively in Old English poetry, and also in the Old Norse literature of the Elder Edda and the skalds. Riddles thus have a distinguished literary ancestry, although the contemporary sort of conundrum that passes under the name of "riddle" may not make this obvious. In the Anglo-Saxon world, the wis had wisdom due to their wit – their ability to conciliate and mediate by maintaining multiple perspectives, which has degenerated into a species of comedy, but was not always a mere laughing matter. This wit was taught with a form of oral tradition called the riddle, a collection of which were bound, along with various other gnomic verses and maxims ca. 800 A.D and deposited in Exeter Cathedral in the eleventh century - the so-called Exeter Book, one of the most important collection of Old English manuscripts which has survived. The riddles in this book vary in significance from childish rhymes and ribald innuendo, to some particularly interesting insights into the preChristian thought world of our archaic linguistic ancestors, such as the following (Riddle 47 from the Exeter Book):
The answer called for by the poem is 'bookworm'. The meaning is metaphoric - the riddle expressing the skepticism of an oral culture in the face of a literacy revolution. The general technique of the riddle form is to refer obliquely to the subject by kenning and other sorts of figurative language; since kennings formed such an important element of alliterative verse forms in the Germanic languages, the riddles served the dual empirical purpose of puzzling the poet's audience and teaching the lore needed to successfully use or understand the poetic language. But riddles also served a more abstract role in Anglo-Saxon education, for they taught their listeners how to track two (or more) meanings at once in a single semantic situation, and a fortiori their very existence demonstrates that the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons were not inhabiting a thought-world lacking in subtlety and complexity. There are at least eighteen distinct Anglo-Saxon words describing aspects of cognitive skill [frod, ferð, onhæle, degol, cunnan, dyrne, hyge, hygecraft, hylest, heort, þencan, gleaw, sceolon, giedd, mod, sawol, heofodgimme, wis, snot(t)or, wat, swican - the list could be extended], a fact which attests to a culture valuing cognitive skills, albeit in an oral and not literate context. The god Odin was a master of riddle lore, and sparred with several of his foes using contests of riddles. In the Vafthruthnismal, Odin defeats his foe by posing a question only he could possibly know the answer to.
But riddles were not excluive to the Anglo-Saxons and Old Norse; they are an ancient and ubiquitous cultural phenomenon. Oedipus killed the Sphinx by grasping the answer to the riddle it posed (Oedipus Tyrannus, lines 380 onward); Samson outwitted the Philistines by posing a riddle about the lion and the beehive (Judges 14:5-18). In both cases, riddles, far from being mere child’s play, are made to decide matters of life and death. Although Plato reports that ancient Greek children did indeed engage in riddle play (Republic 479c), he also recognized the important function that riddles can play in showing what cannot literally be said about ultimate truths (Letters, book 2, 312d), as does the Hebraic Book of Proverbs which shows "how to understand a proverb and a figure, the words of the wise and their riddles" (Proverbs 1:5-6). Aristotle considered riddles important enough to include discussion of their use in his Rhetoric. He describes the close relationship between riddles and metaphors: “Good riddles do, in general, provide us with satisfactory metaphors; for metaphors imply riddles, and therefore a good riddle can furnish a good metaphor” (1405b4-6). Archer Taylor says in his book English Riddles from Oral Tradition “we can probably say that riddling is a universal art” and cites riddles from hundreds of different cultures including Finnish, Hungarian, American Indian, Chinese, Russian, Dutch and Filipino sources amongst many others. Hamnett analyzes African riddling from an anthropological viewpoint in his article “Ambiguity Classification and Change: the Function of Riddles” [Man 2(1967)pp.379-391]. Scott analyzes Persian and Arabic riddles in “On Defining the Problem of a Structural Unit” [Genre 2(1969)pp.129-142]. Athenaeus of Naucratis (fl. C. 200 AD) complied a copious anthology of ancient Greek riddles citing some 1,250 authors under the title Epitome.


"Charades" are reported to have originated in France in the 18th century, and later spread across Europe and around the world. The first mention of charades in English was in a letter written in 1776 by Lady Boscawen, a Bluestocking and widow of Admiral Edward Boscawen. Early charades were usually in rhyming form, and contained a clue for each syllable ("my first", "my second",...) of a chosen word or phrase, followed by a clue about the entire word ("my whole"). Charades played a role in Jane Austen's Emma. One famous composer of such charades is Winthrop Mackworth Praed; others are Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and Pope Leo XIII. An example of this form of charade, taken from an early American magazine in 1834, goes like this
"My first, tho’ water, cures no thirst,
My next alone has soul,
And when he lives upon my first,
He then is called my whole."
The answer to this charade is "sea-man". Another, composed by Jane Austen herself, is this:
When my first is a task to a young girl of spirit,
And my second confines her to finish the piece,
How hard is her fate! but how great is her merit
If by taking my whole she effects her release!
The answer is "hem-lock".
This form of charade appeared in magazines, books, and on the folding fans of the Regency. The answers were sometimes printed on the reverse of the fan, suggesting that they were a flirting device, used by a young woman to tease her beau.
The name "charades" gradually became more popularly used to refer to acted charades. Examples of the acted charades are described in William Thackeray's Vanity Fair and in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.

Poetic Form

The poetic form became very popular in Victorian times, when each line of a classic riddle would describe individual letters or syllables of the solution, with the last line describing the complete answer, for example,
My first is in tea but not in leaf
My second is in teapot and also in teeth
My third is in caddy but not in cosy
My fourth is in cup but not in rosy
My fifth is in herbal and also in health
My sixth is in peppermint and always in wealth
My last is in drink, so what can I be?
I’m there in a classroom, do you listen to me?
The solution here is Teacher.
On the Indian subcontinent, Amir Khusro made the poetic riddles popular. An example:
(In Hindi)
Nar naari kehlaati hai,
aur bin warsha jal jati hai;
Purkh say aaway purkh mein jaai,
na di kisi nay boojh bataai.
English translation
Is known by both masculine and feminine names,
And burns up without rain;
Originates from a man and goes into a man,
But no one has been able to guess what it is.
The solution here is nadi, or "river".

Riddle Game

The Riddle Game is a formalized guessing game, a contest of wit and skill in which players take turns asking riddles. The player that cannot answer loses. Riddle games occurs frequently in mythology and folklore, particularly Scandinavian, as well as in popular literature.
In J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, Gollum challenges Bilbo Baggins to a riddle competition; Bilbo wins the competition by asking the riddle, "What have I got in my pocket?" (though he notes that it was not exactly a riddle "according to the ancient rules") which Gollum cannot answer. The answer was the One Ring, which Gollum had lost and Bilbo had found. Although this is more of a simple question than a riddle, by attempting to answer it rather than challenging it Gollum accepted it as a riddle; by accepting it, his loss was binding.
In The Grey King, the third book of Susan Cooper's fantasy sequence The Dark is Rising, Will and Bran must win a riddle game in order for Bran to claim his heritage as the Pendragon.
In Norse mythology, the king of the gods, Odin, like Bilbo, won such a contest by the questionable tactic of asking a question to which only he could know the answer. However, as with Gollum, the adversary who accepts such a question is bound to honor the terms of the game.
Richard Wagner placed a riddle game in Act One of his opera Siegfried.
In the video game, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, the player character can become trapped inside of a Rakatan Rakatan mind trap in which he or she must engage in a riddle game with the trap's prisoner to escape safely.
In The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands and The Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass, the ka-tet must riddle against Blaine the Mono in order to save their lives. At first Blaine can answer all riddles posed to him by the ka-tet easily, but then Eddie Dean, one of the ka-tet, gains the upper hand when he starts to ask "joke riddles", effectively frustrating Blaine's highly logical mind.
A Riddle Game plays a key role in various versions of Turandot. The suitors need to answer all three questions to gain the Princess's hand, or else they are beheaded - In Puccini's opera Turandot grimly warns Calaf 'The riddles are three, but Death is one'.

Modern television

In the Batman comic books, one of the hero's best known enemies is The Riddler who is personally compelled to supply clues about his upcoming crimes to his enemies in the form of riddles and puzzles. Stereotypically, they are the kind of simple riddles as described below, but modern treatments generally prefer to have the character use more sophisticated puzzles.

Contemporary riddles

Contemporary riddles typically use puns and double entendres for humorous effect, rather than to puzzle the butt of the joke, as in:
When is a door not a door?
When it's ajar (a jar).
What's black and white and red (read) all over?
A newspaper.
What's brown and sounds like a bell?
(Repeated in an episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus)
Why is six afraid of number seven?
Because seven eight (ate) nine.
These riddles are now mostly children's humour and games rather than literary compositions.

Online riddles / Web riddles

A modern adaptation of the riddle concept has begun appearing on several websites, where a series of clues are given on a basic HTML webpage that the player must solve in order to find the URL to the following webpage.
Clues are often used on the page itself, in the form of text, pictures, etc. as well as in the title bar. In more complex riddles, the URL to images and the page's source code (in the form of comments) can also contain clues.
For example, a basic riddle may contain a page with the text: "The answer to this riddle is simple" and the player would then have to enter the answer as "simple.html" in the URL bar.
The riddles usually get harder to solve as they go along, the clues become more cryptic and become more complex as they require the user to combine a number of "skills" they have obtained along the way. These include changing image URLs to view a different or edited image, and applying answers from previous questions.
One of the more popular of these riddle sites is Weffriddles, created by "Weff Jebster." He cites taking inspiration from other online puzzle games on the homepage of his website.

External links

riddle in Aymara: Katjawi
riddle in German: Rätsel
riddle in Estonian: Mõistatus
riddle in Spanish: Adivinanza
riddle in Esperanto: Enigmo
riddle in French: Charade
riddle in Italian: Indovinello
riddle in Hungarian: Scharade
riddle in Dutch: Raadsel
riddle in Japanese: なぞなぞ
riddle in Norwegian: Gåte
riddle in Norwegian Nynorsk: Gåte
riddle in Polish: Szarada
riddle in Portuguese: Enigma
riddle in Russian: Загадка
riddle in Sicilian: Nniminagghia
riddle in Simple English: Riddle
riddle in Chinese: 燈謎

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Chinese puzzle, anagram, answer, arabesque, assort, auger, babble, baffle, bafflement, basketry, basketwork, be Greek to, be beyond one, be too deep, beat one, bewilderment, bite, blaze, blaze a trail, blemish, blotch, blow to pieces, blow up, bolt, bolter, bore, bother, bottom, brain, brand, bring down, broach, burn to death, cancellation, categorize, chalk, chalk up, charade, charge, check, check off, cicatrize, clarifier, classify, clear up, cock, colander, collate, confoundment, confusion, conundrum, cordon, cordon off, countersink, crack, cradle, cribble, cribriformity, cribrosity, cross-hatching, crossing-out, cull out, cut down, cut to pieces, dapple, dark horse, dash, deal a deathblow, debug, decipher, decode, define, delimit, demarcate, detonate, dilemma, discharge, discolor, discomposure, disconcert, disconcertedness, disconcertion, disconcertment, disentangle, disintegrate, disturbance, divide, divine, do, dope, dope out, dot, drill, drop, eject, embarrassment, empierce, engrave, enigma, escape one, explain, fathom, fell, figure out, filigree, fill, filter, find out, find the answer, find the solution, fire, fire off, fix, fleck, frag, freckle, fret, fretwork, frontier, frontiers of knowledge, gash, get, get right, ghettoize, gibber, gin, gore, gouge, gouge out, gradate, grade, grate, grating, grid, gridiron, grille, grillwork, group, guess, guess right, gun, gun down, gun for, hachure, hatch, hatching, have it, hit, hit it, hole, honeycomb, impale, impress, imprint, incinerate, infect, infest, insulate, interlacement, interpret, intertexture, intertwinement, isolate, jam, jugulate, keep apart, keep aside, lace, lacery, lacework, lacing, lance, lapidate, lattice, latticework, lay aside, lay low, let fly, let off, line, lixiviator, load, logogriph, lose one, make a mark, make out, mark, mark off, mark out, matter of ignorance, mesh, meshes, meshwork, mottle, mystery, mystification, n, need explanation, needle, net, netting, network, nick, nonplus, not make sense, not penetrate, notch, open the lock, pass comprehension, pelt, pencil, penetrate, pepper, percolator, perforate, permeate, perplex, perplexity, perturbation, pervade, pick off, pick out, pickle, pierce, pink, pistol, plexure, plexus, plight, plug, plumb, point, poleax, porosity, porousness, poser, pot, pother, potshoot, potshot, predicament, prick, prime, print, problem, psych, psych out, punch, punctuate, puncture, purifier, put aside, puzzle, puzzle out, puzzlement, quandary, quarantine, question, raddle, rank, ravel, ravel out, ream, ream out, rebus, refiner, refinery, resolve, reticle, reticulation, reticule, reticulum, rocker, run through, scar, scarify, score, scotch, scrape, scratch, screen, screening, seal, sealed book, seam, seclude, segregate, separate, set apart, set aside, shoot, shoot at, shoot down, shoot to death, shotgun, sieve, sievelikeness, sift, sifter, silence, size, skewer, snipe, solve, sort, sort out, sorter, speak in tongues, spear, speck, speckle, spike, spit, splotch, sponge, spot, spread, stab, stab to death, stain, stamp, stew, stick, stigmatize, stone, stone to death, strainer, streak, striate, strike, strike dead, stripe, subordinate, take a potshot, talk double Dutch, tap, tattoo, terra incognita, texture, the incalculable, the strange, the unfamiliar, the unknowable, the unknown, thrash, thresh, tick, tick off, tissue, torpedo, trace, tracery, transfix, transpierce, trellis, trelliswork, trepan, trephine, unassuredness, underline, underscore, undo, unexplored ground, unexplored territory, unknown quantity, unlock, unravel, unriddle, unscramble, untangle, untwist, unweave, upset, vaporize, wattle, weave, weaving, web, webbing, webwork, weft, why, wicker, wickerwork, winnow, winnowing basket, winnowing fan, winnowing machine, work, work out, x, z
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