USC Digital Folklore Archives / Riddle

Riddle: Shadow

Main Piece: “What follows you everywhere when you’re walking, sleeping, flying, jumping, falling….um…but stays still when you’re not moving? That part I kind of made up. [Pause]. The answer is: shadow. And that’s it.”

Background Information: River, a nine year old boy, heard this riddle from his friends Ruby and Sky in Idaho. His friends told him the riddle when they were hanging out together. When I asked him what he enjoyed about the riddle, he said he didn’t think it was funny, but he did think it was challenging.

Performance Context: River sat across from me at his dining room table. He was relaxed telling me this riddle and focused on his telling of the riddle.

My Thoughts: I, personally, appreciated this riddle as it is tricky with a satisfying answer. River told this riddle well- he paused in the appropriate place of the riddle, expecting an answer from the recipient (me). River is in 4th grade, so there is often time to tell stories to friends at recess, lunch, etc. According to River, riddles are commonly told on the playground. It’s almost as if the teller sits atop of the hierarchy of the playground, with the wisdom and power of the answer. River seems to only tell riddles to friends he trusts. Since he admits he’s not good at keeping secrets, he wouldn’t tell the riddle to anyone who might use it against him (i.e. someone who might claim ownership of the riddle). The riddle is pretty general- its answer doesn’t only appeal to a certain group or have any quips that are specific to one context. It’s broadness allows for inclusive understanding.


Riddle: Foreheads

Main Piece: “There is a pool…no there is a clear pool…with no people in it. Twenty people jump in. And twenty four heads pop up. How is that possible? There are no people in the pool…wait delete that…the answer is twenty four heads pop up…how is that possible? And then I don’t really know how to tell you the answer…I do actually…the answer is: there is really…do CAPS for this… twenty four HEADS…that’s it….wait…yes that’s it”

Background Information: The informant is nine years old. He is a little socially awkward, so his speech may seem choppy. He heard this riddle in Idaho from his friends, Ruby and Sky. He likes this riddle because he says, “it’s challenging and it’s a good play on words.” The informant continues to tell this riddle to his friends at school.

Performance Context: The informant sat across from me at his dining room table.

My Thoughts: The informant seems to enjoy this riddle and want to share it with me because of the ways words can have multiple meanings. He notes the ways in which trickery through riddles challenges traditional notions of understanding language. His friends passed the folklore to him and now he passes it onto his friends as well. Once a receiver of the folklore, the informant is now the teller, using a verbal method transfer this piece of folklore.

Folk speech

Cuban Riddle

Original Script: “Un muchacho le pregunta a una muchacha, ‘Cómo te llamas?’ Ella le contesta, ‘Si el enamorado es entendido, ahí va mi nombre y el color de mi vestido. La respuesta correcta es, ‘Su nombre es Elena y su vestido es morado.”

Transliteration: “A boy asks a girl, ‘How do you call yourself?’ She to him responds, ‘If the lover is understood, there goes my name and the color of my dress.’ The answer correct is, ‘Her name is Elena and her dress is purple.'”

Translation: “A boy asks a girl, ‘What’s your name?’ She responds, ‘If the lover is understood, there goes my name and the color of my dress.’ The correct answer is, “Her name is Elena and her dress is purple.'”


This riddle only makes sense in Spanish because the Spanish word for lover, enamorado, is a combination of the last three letter’s of the girl’s name, Elena, as well as the color of her dress, morado. ena+morado=enamorado. Furthermore, the word enamorado is preceded by the word el in the joke. El translates into “the” in this context. The woman in the riddle is testing the man to see if he’s clever enough to figure out  her name using only the clue, rather than just asking for it.

The source said she heard it at a bridal shower. They were telling wedding riddles, and this one came up. It’s a coy riddle, with the woman sounding very flirtatious. It seems she’s interested in this man, but only if he’s smart enough to beat her game. It seems odd that her dress would be purple rather than white, though. Perhaps in some earlier version of the riddle, the man was a prince? Because purple is known to indicate royalty.


For another form of this riddle:

Ortiz Y Pino De Dinkel, Reynalda, and Dora Gonzales De Martínez. Una Colección De Adivinanzas Y Diseños De Colcha = A Collection of Riddles and Colcha Designs. Santa Fe, NM: Sunstone, 1988. Google Books. Web. 23 Apr. 2016.


Riddle About Man

Riddle: What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening?

Answer: Man. He crawls on all hands and knees as a baby, walks on two legs as an adult, and walks using a cane in his old age.

This is a well known riddle, cited from The

According to the UnMuseum, this riddle was given by the Sphinx to all travelers. It would eat all the travelers who could not answer his riddle, until Oedipus gave the correct answer of “Man,” and caused the Sphinx to die.

The fact that his riddle from such a long time ago is so well known even today shows the universality of riddles about humanity. This riddle causes people to reflect and look at themselves and their lives in order to answer the riddle. It makes people think about the concept of life and aging, and brings an awareness to the natural progression of life in a clever way.

Folk speech
Rituals, festivals, holidays

“Something old, Something new, Something borrowed, Something blue”

Original Script: “Alright, so this is a really common wedding riddle but it is the old, ‘something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue’ Doing events, especially weddings, I hear this saying all the time. However, I have never seen a bride really go out of her way to put this together…or at least I have never been apart of putting this together for the bride. It usually consists of four items, and of course I have heard of people doing this but have never actually seen it done. However, one time, it was a lovely older couple getting married, and the bride combined all four elements into one! The necklace was old, I believe it was her grandmothers, but there was a new hook on it, so it was new and old. The necklace belonged to her mother, but she let the bride borrow it. AND, there was a blue gem in the middle of it! It was crazy! But really cute!

I don’t know if it really counts as the riddle suggests, but it was a cool mix of the four things! I actually don’t think a lot of couples have heard of the riddle, or at least don’t keep it in mind…I don’t think it is as important now as it was in the past, like, I don’t know if I will do that when I get married, I will focused more on how things will go, how the event will turn out, and of course, you can’t forget the dress!”

Background Information about the Piece by the informant: Tiffany is an event coordinator and has been for a couple of years. She has ample experience in the event planning business and usually knows how to get out of the most complicated situations. The events she plans are anywhere from corporate events, fundraisers, to weddings (destination or locale in California). Planning events, usually weddings, there are a lot of traditions that surround them (for example the bride’s father walking her down the aisle, holding a bouquet of flowers, throwing that bouquet into a crowd of woman and whoever catches it, is who is getting married next). While being apart of all of these traditions, according to Tiffany the riddle above is a rarity in weddings, or at least an event planner is not part of that particular tradition.

Context of the Performance: Wedding Day Prepping

Thoughts about the piece: From television shows to magazines such as the high-end wedding magazine by Grace Ormonde, this riddle shows up everywhere, and is never taken out of its traditional setting, which is a wedding on the wedding day. I found it interesting how Tiffany has never seen the actual process of getting each individual item from all the weddings she has conducted. The only case she had seen this riddle played out was through the clients of an older couple. This suggests, that the riddle might have been more prominent through the past generations, where it was more of a practiced tradition to get something that was old, something that was new, something that was borrowed, and something that was blue. However, this tradition has become seemingly not adherent to the newer couples that are getting married, since Tiffany had mentioned that she has not seen the tradition thoroughly done before (please note that she has coordinated over 20 weddings). Each item the riddle describes also has a specific significance: something new would be a representation of the future; something old would be a representation of the past (where that person comes from); something borrowed would be a representation of the connections that person has; and something blue would represent loyalty (as the color is associated with such). Thus, the motifs of these items correlate with motifs to the day of the wedding.

Furthermore, Tiffany had mentioned that, “at least she has never been a part of that,” which shows that there is a separation of groups, the occupational group being the coordinators and another group being the attendees at the wedding (there of course of three divisions in this group the bride’s family, the groom family, and the friends). A fascinating connection all these groups have is the wedding day, where all four of them come together, just like all four of the items in the riddle come together. Additionally, it is important to see the seperation of knowledge from the two different groups (i.e. the coordinators and the clients). For example, tiffany has heard of the proverb because of all the weddings she has coordinated, she had mentioned that, “I actually don’t think a lot of couples have heard of the riddle, or at least don’t keep it in mind it.” Which demonstrates that traditions are constantly changing overtime.


Big Book of Riddles

D is a 57 year old man. He is a practicing cardiologist at a hospital in the northern suburbs of Illinois. He identifies as American as he grew up in Boston, but he strongly associates with his Scottish heritage as well. D completed his undergraduate studies at Dartmouth University and he attended Cornell University for his degree in medicine. During his studies, both undergraduate and med school, D studied abroad in France two times. While in medical school, D studied at the Faculté de Médecine et de Maïeutique de Lille in Lille, France. English is his primary language, yet he is also fluent in French.

Me: Do you have any riddles?

D: Well there was this riddle book that I used to love. “Big Book of Riddles” by Bennett Cerf. The book is probably 40 to 60 years old, and my parents still have it. I loved reading it with my kids when we visited them. The riddles were for children, but everyone always had a good laugh. My kids and my wife and I go though the book every time we visit. It has gotten to a point where we know every riddle in the book from memory.

Me: Can you tell me some of the riddles?

D: Sure. Why do firemen wear red suspenders?

Me: Why?

D: To keep their pants up!

Me: Ok.

D: What did the pig say when the farmer caught him by the tail?

Me: I don’t know?

D: This is the end of me.

Me: That’s a good one.

D: What do you call something that’s big, red, and  eat rocks?

Me: Umm.

D: A big, red, rock eater!

Me: They really gave these a lot of thought didn’t they.

D: Well the thing is, if you make it simple and put a small twist in it, it makes it a lot funnier.

Me: Hmm.

D: What makes more noise than a cat stuck in a tree?

Me: Uh…I have no idea.

D: Two cats!

Me: Wow.

D: What time is it when there is an elephant sitting on your fence?

Me: …

D: Time to build a new fence!

Me: Oh my god.

D talks about the book fondly and still gets a good laugh out of them. The are just stupid, dumb fun and he enjoy’s the feeling of being a kid again when reading them. The book still remains in his family after 40 to 60 years! His children will likely pass the book down to their kids as well, and if not the book then at least their favorite riddles. It’s funny how something so simple and childish and seemingly dumb can bring someone so much joy. It’s funny to think that reading a book of riddles can be a family tradition, but it is.

Here’s the link to the book:


Folk speech

The “Sphinx” Riddle

  1. The “Sphinx” Riddle:

“What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three in the evening?” “Man”.

  1. My father had heard this riddle a long time ago from one of his professors in college. The professor actually offered extra credit to anyone in the class that was able to solve this riddle. My dad was actually pretty good at solving riddles, but with this one in particular he remembered he had an extremely difficult time solving.
  2. Aside from just being a complex riddle people enjoy sharing with others, this riddle is actually significant in Ancient Drama. In the Greek play titled, Oedipus Tyranny, this riddle is featured as the riddle that destroyed the sphinx. Due to this play, this riddle is commonly recognized as the “Sphinx Riddle”.
  3. I actually thought that this riddle was also extremely difficult to solve as well. Even after the answer was given to me I was still slightly confused by it. After a thorough explanation of the answer, I understood the riddle. I think since the answer itself was as complex as the riddle, this is what truly made it nearly impossible to solve on your own without any extra help or guidance.
Folk speech

The Room Riddle

  1. So you’re in a room with no exit. There’s only a round table and a saw. How do you get out? You cut the table in half, because two halves make a “whole”.
  2. This was a riddle the informant had heard in class one day, at her middle school. She likes to re-tell this riddle because most of the time, she discovered that people are unable to answer it. She likes that they are surprised when they learn what the answer actually is, because it then appears to be rather obvious. She actually learned it from her substitute teacher during their class time. Their teacher was trying to see if anyone in their class could solve this riddle before being released for recess. The informant thinks the riddle is light-hearted enough to tell to others just for fun, or in casual conversation.
  3. This riddle can be shared in normal day-to-day conversation if you wish to incorporate something more entertaining within your conversation. This riddle is good for all ages, from elementary school students to adults.
  4. I thought that this riddle was effective. I actually was not able to solve it, but I found it humorous when the informant eventually told me the answer. I think that I would share this riddle with some of my other friends sometime, just for fun. I would also like to know whether or not they would immediately be able to solve the riddle. I have never heard this riddle before, so it’d be interesting to see if this were a well-known riddle among my peers that I just never had learned prior to speaking with the informant.
Folk speech

Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?

There is a very common joke: “Why did the chicken cross the road?”

Usually, it’s followed by the answer: “To get to the other side.”

From that joke, there has been many other jokes that stemmed from the joke, such as: “Why did the chicken cross the playground?” “To get to the other slide.”

These types of literal jokes are called anti-jokes, in which the punchline is not a clever play on words, but a literal, mundane answer.

For reference of the first time this joke was published, please see: The Knickerbocker, or The New York Monthly, March 1847, p. 283.


Make something round

Informant places 5 sticks on the counter, all parallel to each other.

“Make something round from these sticks, only moving two of them.”

The informant takes the two outside sticks, and places them perpendicular to and above the 2nd and 5th sticks. This forms three letters, which together spell “TIT”.

“So when I was about 10 or so, I went out to visit my uncle. I always used to visit him during the summer. By this time, I was getting older and I had always had older brothers, so, ya know, I was starting to figure some things out. I guess my uncle picked up on this and wanted to initiate me into becoming a man or something. So I go to his house, and he asks if I want to hear a riddle. I say yes, so he lays out 5 sticks and asks him to make something round while only moving two. I consider myself smart, but I couldn’t figure it out. So he shows me, and he got so excited about it.”

This particular riddle seems to be something of a coming-of-age ritual, a way to initiate a young boy into becoming a teenager. This transition is often accompanied by increased interest in sex. This riddle seems to be a way to gradually push the subject over the liminal, and onto the path toward adulthood.