USC Digital Folklore Archives / Riddle
Folk speech

Friday Riddle

Text: Question: A man goes to town on Friday. He stays for three days, then leaves on Friday. How is this possible?

Answer: The horse’s name is Friday.

Context: AA is a student at the University of Southern California studying Business. During the summers when she was in high school, she used to be a camp counselor. People used to tell her this riddle at school when she was a kid. When she went to work as a camp counselor, the kids were telling me this riddle, and it reminded her of being a kid. The following folkloric performance took place in class.

Interpretation: Riddles are not as big in US compared to other parts of the world, and they tend to be seen as an exclusively kid genre. In some societies around the world, riddles can be held in high regard. In some places, for example, you can substitute physical fighting with a riddle contes, or use riddles in part of a marriage ceremonies as a way to test your future son-in-law. The above example of a riddle, however, is mostly known among children, as the way that AA was reintroduced to the riddle at camp is explained above. Riddles, at times, are not popular among adults in our society because adults tend to think our language is fixed, when kids are more flexible to the idea of thinking outside the box. This riddle holds true to providing the essential function of testing the bounds of language capabilities.

AA’s riddle is considered a true riddle. True riddles propose a challenge, and you should be able to follow the clues to reach the answer. Traditional questions and answer structure is employed, as well as specific phrasing along the lines of, “When is A not A?” or “When is A B?” They propose a solution to a seemingly impossible question and generate an apparent “magical transformation” of the language. In terms of the riddle above, if thinking inside the box, it is impossible to enter and leave town on the same day of the week without only staying 1 day or all 7 days (or multiples thereof). However, when considering that prepositions such as “on” can indicate varied states, and that the proper noun “Friday” can be more than just a day of the week, and answer is discovered and the riddle is solved.

Folk speech

A Plane Crash Riddle

Main Text:

JM: “There was a plane crash. Every single person died, who survived? The answer would be every married couple because every single person died.”


This riddle was collected from my 11 year old sister who is currently in fifth grade and about to go to middle school. When I asked her where or when she would tell a riddle/joke like this, she told me that she would usually tell it to her friends on the playground at recess. I also asked her if it was every common for her to tell jokes or riddles in the classroom and she responded that she usually does not because then the teacher would get mad because it is teaching time and not play time.


One reason that children are passing along a riddle with such content can be explained by analyzing the environment that children are faced with at school. In elementary school all the way up to high school, many young kids and young adults are preoccupied with finding a boyfriend or girlfriend and all of the adolescent urges that are associated with this. The riddle plays off of the idea of there being a difference people single people and married people and for this to be a topic of discussion amongst young people is not really surprising. As said in chapter 5 of the book Folk Groups and Folklore Genres An Introduction, Jay Mechling says that people, especially children make jokes or base their folklore off of things that it has been taboo for them to talk about. Kids around 11 years of age are entering puberty and exploring new things about their body that come with puberty. In other words, one reason that this riddle is being passed around by 11 year olds and other kids in elementary school is that it takes about relationship status which kids themselves find as a constant preoccupation at school which is treated as taboo by most parents. It is also important to note that this riddle was collected from an 11 year old fifth grader who understand that this riddle is an example of a play-on-words and this kind of riddle would probably not be passed around by younger children due to its complexity.

Another main part of this riddle that can be analyzed is its focus on dark humor. Although the answer to the riddle has more to do with the play-on-words than on the subject of the plan crash itself, it is important to analyze why a plane crash would be the plot in the riddle in the first place. According to Peter Narvaez, the author of Of Corpse: Death and Humor in Folklore and Popular Culture, many jokes and riddles are made to be dark humor. This means that the plot of the jokes and riddles are centered around many dark aspects of life like genocides, death, rape etc as a means to act as a release to those telling the jokes. People have been made to believe that they can not talk about dark experiences or occurrences, so as sort of a way to fight this oppression of speech per se, these jokes are created.

Coupled together, these analyses produce the idea that this joke was created and told among children as a way as addressing the topics that children have been made to believe that they are unable to talk about as well as a release of people’s beliefs on some things that are considered ‘dark’ in the form of humor. These forbidden topics hidden in the form of a joke/riddle allow this riddle and people to continue addressing these oppressed needs without repercussion from adults or other individuals, allowing the riddle to survive and continued to be told hopefully for years to come.

Folk speech

Cowboy Riddle

Main Piece:


“A cowboy came town on Friday

He stayed for two days

And left on Wednesday

How is this possible?”


“His horse’s name is Friday.”

Context and Analysis:

The informant claims she heard this riddle in her early childhood as she was watching the television show, iCarly. She claims when she heard it she was very excited and remembered it to tell her family later. When she told her family they were not able to decipher the answer and therefore the informant knew this was a good riddle. The informant claims she does not know of any meaning in this riddle nor does she think it originates from a particular place. She believes it could have originated anywhere as all places could have cowboys and horses.  The informant believes this riddle is only for entertainment purposes.

When my informant first said to me this riddle I was shocked by my inability to decipher it. My first thought was that the riddle was a play on the week’s days, and I began to try to find a way in which I could go through the week with Wednesday occurring before Monday. I was unsuccessful in this attempt. After that I began to think of transportation methods that could travel fast through time; once again I was unsuccessful. I eventually gave up and begged my informant for the answer. When she said it to me, I thought to myself, “how did I not think of that.” This is not an unusual feeling when trying to come up with a solution and after giving up realizing how simple it was. I think this is what can make riddles so frustrating or fascinating. Often the answer to the riddle is simple, and when the riddle’s audience is unable to guess it, this can cause frustration for the audience and fascination for the person recounting the riddle.

There also seems to be a requirement for a riddle to be hard to guess but to have a simple answer to be distinguished as a good riddle. The most popular riddles are those that leave people thinking about them, how they were unable to guess the answer and are now only able to find joy in sharing this unsatisfied feeling with others by retelling this riddle. If the riddle is guessed or the audience has heard it before often the one recounting the riddle is disappointed at not having been able to make others feel what he or she felt by not being able to guess the riddle.

Folk speech

I met a man going to St. Ives

Na: I met a man as I was going to St. Ives and every, and every, oh! I met a man who had, um, cats, he, oh gosh, anyway (Ni: *laughing*) at St. Ives, and he met this man with cats and kits and whatever. So the whole term is: How many people were going to St. Ives?

Ni: I, I don’t know, 2??

Na: One, (Ni: one??) me! (*chuckles*)

Ni: Oh! Ok (*chuckles*)


I received this folklore while talking to my Grandmom, an elderly lady of almost 80, with a lively personality and jovial spirit. She often likes to tell jokes and poke fun, especially and my brother and I, her grandkids. As I was interviewing her for folklore, she decided to tell me a riddle which I had never known before, but apparently both she and her husband, my grandad, definitely knew. Why she remembers this specific riddle is unclear, and as to where she know it from, at this point she doesn’t even remember, but she still remembered the main gist of it, and in the end, both of us were laughing even though I got tripped up when asked to answer the ending question. Riddles across cultures have been used as a way to bring people together and to decide who is and is not a part of the gang, fortunately, my grandmom did not kick me out for not properly answering the riddle. In instances like these, the riddle is all in good fun, a bonding element between and grandma and her granddaughter, everyone was able to have a laugh and the light fun spirits continued. In one variant of the riddle, there are two men, one with I believe cats, and the other with wives, despite this divergence, it always ends the same, with only one person going to St. Ives, me!

folk metaphor
Folk speech

Watermelon House Riddle

“There was a green house, and inside the green house there was a white house. And inside the white house, there was a red house. And inside the red house, there were a bunch of little children. What is it?

Answer: a watermelon.”

Context: The informant and I were exchanging random jokes while waiting outside of our folklore class. Having just come from another class, we were very tired and hoping to lighten the mood before going in to class. This joke is memorable because her mother told her this joke at her tenth birthday party while her family was eating watermelon.

Analysis: This riddle follows the general application and structure of riddles. Many riddles are seen as a component of children’s folklore, though not exclusive to it, and are meant to sort of be a bit of a brain teaser and led them to think more complexly and critically. These riddles are supposed to be challenging but are capable of being answered. In this case, the riddle involves an object that most people (especially children) have access to, so the answer is easily understood. Most children are initially stumped, but upon realizing what the answer to the riddle, have an “aha” moment. In my experience, and in the experience of the informant, the more you get confused by the riddle, the more you want to share that riddle and stump your peers and those around you to see if they are “smart enough” to answer this difficult and tricky question.

Along with this, the answer to this riddle has an especially child-friendly aspect to it. Food–and fruit specifically–is something that all children and adults can understand and relate to. Due to this, the riddle is especially effective. The answer is on the tip of everyone’s tongue, but only those who are clever enough to crack the metaphor will be able to come up with the answer. In this way, those who fail to answer the question will carry this riddle forward as a way to stump the people around them in the way that they were tricked.

Folk speech

Imagine you are in a Brick Room


Informant (R): I also used to do a bunch of riddles and stuff, like while hiking at summer camp, you know?

Collector (J): yeah, yeah, that was fun!

R: My favorite was the brick room one.

J: oh yeah, that one messed with me as a kid, I felt so dumb because I couldn’t figure it out.

R: I mean, it was hard!

J: How did it go again?

R: Ok, so imagine you are trapped in a solid brick room, with no windows, no doors, nothing. You have a single piece of rope and a paper clip and a note that says you must escape the room or you’ll die. How do you get out?

J: I mean, I know the answer, but can you say it?

R: Yeah, so I said imagine you’re in the room. Stop imagining.

Context: Both R and J went to summer camp together. They were recalling old games and riddles for the sake of this collection. R learned this riddle from a camp counselor who repeated this riddle while hiking with younger campers.

Analysis: As other riddles are, this riddle contains insider information for those who know the answer to the riddle. Those who “play the game” of trying to solve it are typically misguided and attempt to find ways out of the room with the rope or other tools. Depending on the performance, the “clues” to escape change, keeping those attempting to solve the riddle on their toes. However, those who know the riddle are quick to remember the keyword “imagine.”

Folk speech

Going Through Doors Riddle

JK: Ok, so, it’s a blackout and you’re walking along uh street uh a dark neighborhood street and you see one little cottage that is lit up by candlelight so you go inside and there’s a red door and a purple door. Which one do you go through?

VG: The red.

JK: K, so you go through the red door and you are presented with two more doors. There’s a brown regular looking door and there’s uh- polka dot door. Which door do you go through?

VG: The brown.

JK: You go through the brown door and you are presented with two more doors…it’s a black door and a white door. Which door do you go through?

VG: The white door.

JK: Ok, so you go through the white door and you come out of…the s- into uh- a space brightly lit by candles and there’s a couple there and they’re very angry that you broke into their home and you can either choose death by uh their dogs who will tear you apart or you can choose death by electric chair. Which one do you choose and why?

VG: I choose electric chair-

JK: Why?

VG: Because it’s faster.

JK: Nah-

EM: I know what this is- can I answer it?

JK: Yeah.

EM: Cause- wait there’s no electricity right?

JK: Yeah, you choose the electric chair because the power is out.

(Everyone laughs)

VG: Dammit.



Location of story – N/A

Location of Performance – Different student’s dormitory room, Los Angeles, CA, afternoon


Context: This performance took place between 2-3 people who were working on a film project together for class. This story came in response to my question if anyone had time to talk before the film shoot to talk about traditions specific to school, festivals, holidays, and riddles. JK and I had just met recently on this project. His story had just followed two about high school traditions.


Analysis: My favorite part about this performance is that the other person in the room, EK, had heard of this riddle before. Moreover, EK’s question about whether she can spoil the end demonstrates the universally understood pressure to let the one being challenged demonstrate their wit. I was actually nervous participating in this performance because historically, I am not very good at riddles and whenever I “fail” I always feel socially inferior. It may seem silly, but my anxiety only confirms the social implications of these riddles. 


Folk speech
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Letter “E” Word Riddle

SB: I have one riddle that I know. And it’s what starts with E and ends with E and has one letter in the middle…

VG: Eye.

SB: No (laughs)-

VG: Oh, ha!

SB: Eye? Starts with E, ends with E, has one letter in the middle.

VG: Eye-

SB: What?!

VG: E.Y.E.

SB: Oh, I guess that works too. The riddle is honestly not that exciting- it’s an envelope.

VG: Oh, haha! Where’d you learn that?

SB: Um, well, when I was little I was really into riddles, so I had a little riddle book that my parents gave me, and that’s the only riddle I remember from it…

VG: When did you use the riddles? Just on the- friends?

SB: Yes, I used it as a way to make friends. I thought it would make me more popular. It did with the weird kids, but generally it was not a big hit. That’s why I only remember one.



Location of story – Denver, CO

Location of Performance – SB’s dormitory room, Los Angeles, CA, night


Context: This performance was done just between SB and I in response to me asking if she had any urban legends, riddles, or holiday traditions. I am very close friends with SB. This story follows one about a conspiracy theory about the Denver airport being linked to Satan.


Analysis: This is a prime example of how riddles have been used historically as a social tools. SB was able to implement these in order to demonstrate her own wit to potential friends as well as vet them herself to see if they enjoyed the performance. It is also interesting to note that my answer fit the prompt, but she would still not accept it because that was not how the riddle has historically been performed. It does not matter if my answer is correct because it is not the one that she desired. To me, this demonstrates that the riddles people choose to perform are extremely personal and reflect personal preference, just as choosing clothing or music might indicate.

Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

Children Hand Sign Language about Sexuality

Collector’s Note: This child’s hand sign song has a particular hand motion that comes at the end of the first two sentences. It is followed by two more gestures within the second sentence after the word “this”. It is best to first read the song straight through and later refer to each sentence’s number and timing of hand motion while viewing the corresponding pictures in order.

“Good girls sit like this. (1)

Catholic girls sit like this. (2)

Girls who sit like this, (3)

get this, (4)

like this. (5) *snap* ”

Screen Shot 2019-04-24 at 3.13.11 PM

Context: This piece was collected at the childhood home of a friend of the collector from both elementary and middle school after speaking about their friendship as children.

Informant Analysis: While in elementary school around the age of 10, she remembers that girls would sing this song with the corresponding hand gestures to each other during recess. She said that it is “weird” to look back on that hand game since it seems to represent the sexual activity of women through stereotypes and body position. She recited the meaning as, “if you are a good girl, you keep your legs closed. If you are a Catholic girl, you really keep your legs closed by crossing them. If you are a bad girl, you sit with your legs apart, which for some reason means you will get d**k quicker? I mean, that is essentially what it says, but it says it politely.”

At the young age of when they preformed the hand game, she said that it was not necessarily considered to be sexual in nature, but more of a fun sign language you could teach other girls. She recalls that she never had seen a boy make the hand gesture and song while in elementary school, as it seemed to be like a secret code/handshake between girls. The informant was uncertain as to who taught her the game, but guessed that it was a friend. She also could not remember if this hand game was ever shared with adults, but believed it was probably not. Even though at the time they did not view the hand game as sexual, they did understand that if adults saw it, they would be punished, and they  “did not want to get in trouble.”

Collector Analysis: Being a participant in this folk gesture/song/game, there were a few key aspects that I had not noticed until interviewing the informant. It is easy to assume that this hand game is a way to teach young girls to suppress their sexuality with, what could be considered, the goal of having fewer teen pregnancies. This would imply that adults with knowledge of the effects of teen pregnancy would have to be the root of this piece. Another viewpoint is that the hand game is a way young girls teach each other about the image one presents to the world and it’s importance in not becoming promiscuous (perhaps an antecedent form of slut-shaming). However, I do not believe these interpretations to be the most nuanced if we take into account that the actual piece never mentions girls sitting with their legs open as being “bad” as the informant said.

We can also note that the hand game was played only between young girls. The explicit nature of the content may have something to do with why this piece is gender segregated. It could be that there may be a level of shame that perhaps young boys do not encounter as harshly with regard to their own sexual activity. However, there must be more to the gender segregated sharing of this piece since the young girls did not fully understand the meaning of the hand game at the time. Therefore, I argue that the gender segregated sharing could not only be the sexual shame that often occurs for women as they hit puberty. What the informant referred to as a secret code or handshake seems more probable a source to create the gender segregation. The hand game gives young girls, upon the sudden awareness of gender in elementary school, a way to form a group or friendship around gender commonality. Thus, the performance of the hand game would be an expression of being in the group by having intimate knowledge of their particular gestures.

Lastly, the game itself explicitly refers to girls while never mentioning the male gender except through a crude phallic symbol. To this extent, it is very much a childish thought to represent men only as their sexual organ while also only referring to it as “this” (perhaps taboo word). The game’s proliferation among girls occur by virtue of the excitement in referring to a taboo subject or word among children.


Two Ropes on a Deserted Island

Context: This riddle was told to an audience of one in a fraternity dining hall.

Background: The informant learned this riddle during a long car ride, when he was trying to pass the time.

Q: You’re stranded on a deserted island with nothing but two ropes, and a lighter. There is an unlimited amount of gas in the lighter. The ropes vary in thickness and material throughout the entire rope. The only thing you know for certain about the ropes is that they each take exactly one hour to burn. How do you measure 45 minutes?
A: Light the first rope from both ends at the same time, and light one end of the second rope. When the first rope has burned up completely, 30 minutes have passed, and there are still 30 minutes of burning time left on the second rope. If you light the other end of the second rope, it will burn for 15 more minutes, 45 minutes total.

This riddle requires abstract thinking, and has a very elegant solution.