USC Digital Folklore Archives / Riddle
Folk speech

Sumer Riddle

The ancient civilization Sumer is home to one of the earliest riddles known in existence.  The following is the first riddle recited by my old high school english teacher:

“There is a house. One enters it blind and comes out seeing. What is it?

Answer: A school.

That’s why it’s my favorite”

Analysis: My old teacher said he first heard this riddle from another teacher at a school he used to teach at and has been teaching it to his students ever since.  I think riddles are extremely significant pieces of folklore because they make people think but are still lighthearted.  Riddles have had more cultural significance earlier in history when heroes would commonly be asked them in order to enter or pass through an area of some sort such as a temple.  Nowadays, people do not get asked or tell riddles as commonly, but it is not uncommon for people to still have to answer riddles to gain entry somewhere, like a password to a secret party.  For example, there is a riddle each member of my sorority must solve to gain entrance to our weekly chapter meetings.  Riddles are especially prevalent in schools where instructors are constantly trying to help their students gain knowledge by challenging them academically with something like a riddle.  I find this piece of folklore intriguing because the riddle by itself often accompanies a larger story involving key players such as who is asking the riddle and who is answering the riddle.  One can either choose to look at the whole story or simply analyze the riddle.


The Difference Between God and A Surgeon

The informant is a junior at USC from Chicago, Illinois studying dentistry.

After a discussion of the meaning and purpose of folklore I asked him if he knew of any folk practices or sayings related to his profession. We arrived at this question because he comes from a family of dental practitioners. He has been shadowing various oral surgeons over the past year and described an incident that occurred over the past summer.

He was shadowing a successful oral surgeon in his hometown of Chicago, Illinois. He was observing his first intense oral surgery as it was occurring.

Mid surgery, the surgeon whom he was shadowing looked up and recited the following:

Do you know what the difference between God and a surgeon is?

(After a pause) God doesn’t think he’s a surgeon.

He couldn’t help but break into a fit of laughter as the surgeon returned to his procedure.


This is an interesting little joke that is variously ascribed to a variety of high skill professions such as lawyers and pilots as well. There’s an interesting duality here in that a high level of intelligence, skill, and grit is necessary to become a surgeon, and yet of course there are problems in thinking so highly of oneself. Thus, I sense a bit of ambivalence in the joke that is highly contextual. For example, if the surgeon performs a high-risk surgery correctly and says the joke, there’s a bit of pride in the sense of peril and gamble that the surgeon competed against. On the other hand, if the surgery were to fail and the joke be told (rare or strange, of course), the attention would then shift to the absurdity of such risk, of the sense of avoiding the unavoidable failure and the conceit latent in thinking so. Beyond this startling ambiguity, there’s also a sense of science superseding faith. The surgeon steps in and saves a life when there is no hope, thus affirming his or her self as a miracle of science is performed.

Folk speech

Math joke/riddle

My mom must find numerous ways to engage her students since most people have a fear and hatred of math. She often attempts to tells jokes that relate to something she is teaching. She learned this joke from a colleague.  “You have a kitchen and there is a pot of water on the floor. How do you boil the pot of water? Simple, you pick up the pot of water, place it on the stove, and turn the stove on. Now, how do you boil a pot of water on the counter?…… You place it on the floor and use part A.” My mom likes this joke because it resembles how one would use an existing proof in another proof. She also likes it because it has a deceptively easy answer that most people don’t think of. My mom has a degree in biochemistry and a Master’s degree in educations. She teaches math to high schoolers. She enjoys doing math puzzles and learning to code. As a result, she has collected an enormous amount of folklore. Predominantly from her students, but also from colleagues and conferences. Some of this folklore is unique to each niche while other pieces span multiple groups. This provides a unique perspective on folklore from these rather similar groups. Since my mom and I are quite similar I think the joke is funny for very similar reasons. Since I do a lot of proofs for my classes I think the answer to this joke is a “oh duh” moment. I usually have one of those when I finally figure out how to solve a problem and prove the answer. There is generally one step that makes the whole answer fit together and most of the time it is something annoyingly obvious. This joke just reminds me of those moments which are funny looking back on them, but while I was working on the problem they weren’t so funny.

Folk speech

Russian Riddles

The 26-year-old informant was born in Russia, but moved to the U.S. at a young age. During his undergraduate studies at Dartmouth College, he was a teaching assistant for a Russian folklore class and found these pieces of folklore to be particularly interesting or representative of Russian culture.

“Another sort of interesting thing that occurs in all sort of Russian folklore is riddles. Like, in fairytales you’ll often have heroes having to solve riddles. So one riddle is:

In the morning it’s seven feet long,

At midday it’s seven inches long,

And in the evening, it reaches across the field.

So the answer to that is a shadow.

Another one is:

Can’t be measured,

Can’t be weighed,

But everyone’s got one.

And the answer to that is the mind.”

Folk speech

Riddle – Name three consecutive days

Informant is my mother who loves riddles. She is known to challenge entire dinner parties with this one riddle, often with nobody able to solve it. She presented this one at a family dinner because there was a guest present who hadn’t heard it before. She says she didn’t make it up but doesn’t remember where she heard it. She thinks she probably learned it from her father when she was younger, living in Cherry Hill, NJ.


Here’s the riddle:

Q: Name three consecutive days without using these words: Monday…….Tuesday…….Wednesday…….Thursday……Friday.

A: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow!


I think what makes this riddle memorable is the misdirection in the instructions. Of course, the trick is the use of the word “days.” Because of the nature of the trick, when you know the riddle it’s painfully obvious, but without knowing it can be hopeless. Before one has heard the riddle (like any riddle), the right answer is unclear. But after hearing the solution, it seems so obvious. I think it’s like an initiation to her, a rite of passage at the communal dinner table.


Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear

This is a skipping rhyme told by a male second grader. As he was singing it some of her peers joined in the song.

“Teddy bear, teddy bear, turn around. Teddy bear, teddy bear, touch the ground. Teddy bear, teddy bear, tie your shoes. Teddy bear, teddy bear, get out of school.”

The skipping rhyme was shared by one student within a small group of second graders and myself. The rhyme associates childish themes, such as the teddy bear and tying shoe laces, with more controversial ideas such as ditching school, or perhaps dropping out. This is an oikotype of Teddy Bear skipping song. Upon further research, I found a different rendition of the song that replaced “get out of school” with “say your prayers.” The latter version was a nursery rhyme that may have been passed down my parents and then modified by the children. The children from whom I collected this rhyme couldn’t remember where that had learned the rhyme, therefore it is unclear whether they changed the lyric themselves or had heard it in that form. Either way, the line “get out of school” reflects children’s frustration with the education system. The skipping rhyme was well known by most of the second graders in the classroom, therefore the negative connotation of school was widely spread amongst them and possible others in different grades or classrooms.

For another version of this song, see 201 Nursery Rhymes & Sing-Along Songs for Kids by Jennifer M. Edwards.

Tales /märchen

Sphinx Riddle

“Okay… so I don’t remember where I heard this riddle I must have been extremely young. But I remember it very vividly because I thought it was so cool and I don’t know what it’s called but I remember how it goes. So a Sphinx… when you’re walking down a path and you’re just trying to keep walking but a Sphinx is in your way and so…in order to get past the Sphinx the Sphinx will never let you pass and I think it kills you if you don’t answer the riddle correctly… but the only way to pass is to answer a riddle correctly and this is the riddle the Sphinx asks, ‘what walks on four legs in the morning, two legs during the day, and three legs in the evening’ and nobody ever gets it right so the Sphinx always kills them or doesn’t let them pass, I don’t remember if they kill them or don’t let them pass but the correct answer is a person like a human being because when you’re a baby you crawl on four legs and when you are an adult, you walk on two, and when you’re an old man, you walk on two and your third is a cane and that’s how the Sphinx gets ya”

This is a fairly common folktale if one had studied greek legends. what I enjoy about this folklore is that it’s both a story. A folktale about a Sphinx that kills people, but it’s also a riddle as well. There is a riddle within the story. It’s very Shakespearean in that sense.

Folk speech
Tales /märchen

One Bright Day

The interview will be depicted by initials. The Interviewer is QB and the interview is AS.

QB: So what are these things your dad used to tell you?

AS: Well there was one story that he told me, that he had learned from his father so its been passed down along the family.

QB: Alright go ahead.

AS: One bright day in the middle of the night two dead boys got up to fight. Back to back they faced each other. Drew their swords and shot each other! A deaf policeman heard the noise, got up and shot the two dead boys. If you don’t believe my story is true ask the blind man he saw it too.

Analysis: Its nice to see that this story has been passed around generation to generation. Also the stories ironies are more intended for that of a younger age as the student, and their father, both learned these stories while they were very young. The saying follows many songs that children would sing, but this story is more about death and is spoken.


Folk speech

Argentine Riddle

Main piece:

  1. Q: Lana sube, lana baja. Qué es?

La navaja.

  1. Wool up, wool down. What is it?

The knife.

  1. Wool goes up, wool goes down. What is it?

The knife.

Background information about the piece by the informant: Emanuel was born and raised in Argentina, where this is a common joke riddle. He says it is exclusively Argentinian, as it can only be understood in Spanish being a play on words, and can only be funny in Argentina, as its humor is very specific to the country.

Context on the piece: This is an innocent joke riddle in which the answer is much more simpler than what is expected. In Spanish “Wool goes down” is “Lana baja”, which sounds like “La Navaja”, meaning “The knife”. The audience is supposed to break their heads finding a hidden meaning in the ambiguous question, while the answer is an obvious play on words. It’s a classic “it was so simple the whole time” joke. This makes the person trying to give an answer seem dumb for not knowing such a simple question, so the comedy if for the performer instead of the audience, as he gets to make fun of the person trying to give the answer.

Thoughts on the piece: Emanuel claims the riddle can only work for Argentine sensibilities, which can tell us that this is a society of pranksters who enjoy simple jokes. This joke could be either for kids or adults due to its simplicity and inoffensive nature, despite its point being leaving a person dumbfounded. It also creates a strong sense of community when only people who speak Spanish in Argentine can get the joke.


Bread Riddle

Informant CS is a student at USC who is currently studying physical therapy. He is Japanese, born and raised in Japan, and went to school at an international school in Japan.

CS: “This is a really well known Japanese riddle that I don’t know if it counts as folklore but it’s more of a joke. [says something in Japanese].”

*later I found the original in Japanese: パンはパンでも食べられないパンは、なぁに?

Dude how do I even know what you’re saying

CS: “You can find it online for sure. Anyways, in english it translates to ‘bread is bread, but what bread is inedible?’. The answer is: ‘a frying pan’. Obviously that makes no sense in english, BUT, in Japanese, the word for “bread” is also “pan”, so, if you take that, it is a play on words and the riddle is actually ‘Pan is pan but what pan is inedible?’.”


Thoughts: I mean… that was amongst one of the lamest jokes I’ve ever heard in my life but I guess its a joke riddle so it makes sense. I know in Chinese there are a lot of riddles like that where the answer to the riddle is a play on the original riddle’s word. But when my friend he would tell me a riddle I was expecting something better than this…