The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Riddle

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RIDDLE, any sentence or composition with an intentionally double or veiled meaning, which is propounded for another to discover the meaning. A riddle may either have an apparent sense which serves as a disguise to the real one, or it may be in the form of a question, the terms of which do not directly indicate the nature of the answer required. Riddles naturally divide themselves into two classes: plays upon words, which are otherwise called conundrums; and allegorical or fanciful descriptions of or allusions to the subject on which the riddle is founded. The latter is called an enigma. It is the more ancient and serious form of the riddle. Enigmas, or dark sayings, were frequently used by the ancients to disguise important truths, which it was not deemed safe or advisable that everyone should know. Kings sent enigmas to each other, ambassadors delivered their messages in this form, and the oracles of the gods were frequently conveyed in the form of an enigma. In modern times serious enigmas have been elaborated in prose and verse, particularly the latter, in all civilized languages. They are in general mere elaborate trifling, and are commonly as dull as they deserve to be.

Among the most celebrated examples of ancient riddles is that propounded by the Sphinx, and answered by Œdipus, What animal is that which goes on four feet in the morning, on two at midday, and on three in the evening? The answer is Man, because he goes on all fours as a child, on two feet as a young man, and with a staff in old age. The punning variety of riddle, though sometimes indulged in by the Greeks and Romans, is of comparatively modern growth. It is a great favorite in festive gatherings of juveniles. Sometimes strings of puns are linked together with considerable ingenuity in the more complex riddles of this description, as in the following instance. What wind does a hungry sailor like best? One that blows fowl and chops, and then comes in little puffs. The earliest collection of riddles known to have been published is entitled ‘Demands Joyous,’ printed in 1511. The first French collection was published in Paris by Gille Beys in 1582.