1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Puzzle

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PUZZLE, a perplexing question, particularly a mechanical toy or other device involving some constructional problem, to be solved by the exercise of patience or ingenuity. Some of the oldest mechanical puzzles are those of the Chinese, one of the most familiar being that known as the tangram (chi ch'iao t'ue), which consists of a square of wood or other material cut into five triangles, of different sizes, a small square and a lozenge, which can be so placed as to form over 300 different figures. This puzzle is sometimes made of ivory carved with the delicate workmanship for which the Chinese craftsmen are renowned, and is enclosed in a carved box. Another well-known puzzle is known as the “ Chinese rings,” consisting of a series of rings running linked together on a bar, the problem being to take them off the bar and replace them. The commonest of all puzzles are coloured maps, pictures (“ jig-saw ”) or designs, dissected into numerous variously shaped pieces, to be fitted together to form the complete design. A great number of puzzles are based on mathematical principles, such as the “ fifteen puzzle,” the “ railway shunting puzzle,” and the like.

See W. W. Rouse Ball, Mathematical Recreations and Amusements 1892.

The etymology of the word “ puzzle ” is disputed. It has been usual to consider that the verb, which appears first at the end of the 16th century, is derived from the substantive, and that this is an aphetic form of “ apposal ” or “ opposal ” i.e. opposition, hence a question for solution, cf. Lydgate, Fall of Princes, quoted by Skeat (Etym. Dict. 1898). The New English Dictionary, however, takes it as clear from the chronological evidence and sense-development that the substantive is derived from the verb, which, in its earliest examples, means to put in embarrassing material circumstances, to bewilder, to perplex. This seems against making “ to puzzle ” a derivative of “ to pose,” i.e. “ oppose,” to examine by putting questions. Some connexion may be found with a much earlier word “ poselet,” confused, bewildered, which does not occur later than the end of the 14th century.