USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Riddle’

O Que É, O Que É?

Informant was a 45 year old female who was born in Brazil and currently lives in Brazil. I talked to her over Skype.

Informant: So this is a game of riddle. It’s like a riddle, but it’s also a game. It’s called “O que é o que é,” which is “What is it What is it.” You come up with the riddles at school with friends. It’s something that you need to make people think and have fun. It’s our popular culture. It’s very used with kids, kids play with that a lot. You give clues to what a thing is by describing it, and then the other people have to guess what it is.

Collector: Can you maybe give me an example?

Informant: Ok, for example

O que é o que é

It is deaf and mute but tells everything?

Collector: I don’t know.

Informant: A book. (Laughs)

O que é o que é

That is always broken when it’s spoken?

Collector: Promises?

Informant: Secrets, but close. Last one,

O que é o que é

Is extremely thin, has teeth, but never eats, and even without having money gives food to whoever is hungry?

Collector: What?

Informant: The fork. These are just some examples. I remember a lot of them because they were a really big part of my childhood.

Collector: Why do you like this particular piece of folklore?

Informant: I like it because we used to have a lot of fun we used to play with it all the time, everyone used to have one of these riddles and we used to play all the time, it makes you think and it’s funny. Everytime we were with friends and we were talking or even with family we used to play, but mainly with friends, we used to read books about this to tell friends. It’s just a happy time, we used to play a lot and it was funny.

I remember hearing these riddles when I was a kid. Every time I would go on a road trip, my parents would say these riddles to me about things that would pass by our windows, and it was a fun way to pass the time. It’s really cool to learn that this was also a part of my mother’s childhood, and that she would often play this riddle game with her friends – something I never did. Although it’s mostly a children’s thing, any Brazilian will recognize the famous phrase “o que é o que é” as a riddle. A lot of the riddles are actually quite silly, such as the ones that my mother told me, but it is because they are so silly that they make people laugh.

Folk speech

Three Lightbulbs, Two Rooms, One Answer…

Folk Piece

Question: There are two rooms, one room has nothing but three switches. The other room has nothing but three light bulbs. You can only enter each room once. How do you determine which switch corresponds to which light bulb? Also: the walls aren’t transparent.

Answer: Flip one on, wait a couple minutes, repeat. Feel the heat of the bulbs in the other room.


Background information

The participant likes this riddle because it’s a bit longer than most of the ones he tells. I talked a little about his story in my post ‘A Dog Walks into a Forest…’ But essentially, he likes these riddles because they remind him of him and his dad growing up telling them to one another. He also said “Usually I’d ask riddles that have more to do with word play, I don’t know. But this one is just like a fun variation on that and makes the person think a little bit harder.



I actually guessed this one right, and he was pretty impressed. He asked, “You hadn’t heard that one before?” It was originally being told in a battle of wits between him and a friend of mine, who were asking riddles to one another trying to out-riddle the other. He usually will tell it if someone else will tell one first, or he might do it just to break the ice between he and someone he knows.



Just like the other riddles, this one was told as a back-and-forth exchange between two informants. What I find to be most interesting is the competitive aspect of this folk telling. The informant actually seemed to be legitimately surprised, and even almost a bit annoyed, that I had known the answer. As with traditional riddles, like this one is, there are traditional answers. Typically, those answers are not supposed to be easy to think of; they wouldn’t be considered good riddles if they were. Riddles almost give the person telling them the power to drive the conversation; only they know the answer, or other people who may have heard it.


Also intriguing is the competitive aspect between the two participants. I asked for different riddles, or jokes, but it seemed that just as one ended, another began. I didn’t say that the best one won some sort of prize, or that the most clever would be included. However, it seemed that they were more interested in telling one another these riddles than to me. Why might this be?

I would argue that these participants had learned these riddles throughout their childhood and early adulthood; to them, they own their histories and the memories of them. These riddles, actionable to recall at any time, act as a way to show the history of their wits. Whoever is able to stump the other repeatedly, or has more clever riddles, is the one that has had superior intellectual exposure to riddles. It’s common after someone tells a riddle to say “Ooooh, that’s a good one!” This qualification of which riddles are the most clever can act as an actual social agent in determining the wits of an individual.

Folk speech

Where’s that Polar Bear Going?

Folk Piece

Question: You’re standing in a room which is centered perfectly on the south pole. You see a polar bear walk by the window. In what cardinal direction is the polar bear?

Answer: North. It can be northeast or northwest.


Background information

“I don’t even know where I heard this. Probably when I was in middle school? I don’t know, I definitely remember telling it to people in high school – it’s one of my favorite riddles. It’s just like, simple, but sort of like fucks with your mind a bit? You can almost, like, feel your head spinning as you think about it”



“I usually tell this story only when other people bring riddles up. I don’t, like, just casually whip out some riddles because I want to. But they are fun and entertaining, I guess.”



This, along with “A Dog Walks into a Forest” and “Three Light Bulbs, Two Rooms, and One Answer…” were part of an exchange between two informants that went back and forth with riddles they knew. While the first informant had familial connections to the riddles he was telling, this informant seemed to have less attachment to his riddles. Still, however, it was a point of pride for him when no one could answer. For more analysis on what this competitive aspect of riddling might mean, reference my post “Three Light Bulbs, Two Rooms, and One Answer…”

As for the piece itself, I think it’s interesting that this riddle would probably have been easier in years past. As we become more removed from our transportation and travel around our world, so too does our sense of direction become lost. I know many people who do not know the difference between East and West. While that is certainly not standard, and not a good thing in any way, it was still interesting for me to have to mentally orient myself on a map on the South Pole, spinning my head around trying to make sense of it all.


Folk speech

A Dog Walks into a Forest…

Folk Piece:

Who far could a dog walk into a forest?

Halfway because after that he’s walking out.

Background information

“Well, this is the first riddle my dad ever gave me. Uh, you know, I enjoy word play and I think it’s just a light switch that makes people’s heads really turn a bit. Riddles are just a fun way to get a conversation started sometimes, and yeah, I don’t know, it’s just fun seeing people try and figure it out”


“Well, uh, like I said it’s the first riddle my dad ever gave me. We’d often toss riddles at each other back and forth – well, like, once I was older. And uh, yeah, I’m not sure where this one came from before my Dad, but I know my Grandfather also enjoyed word play, so if I had to guess it would be from him. Now I have a bunch of them I ask people if they ever come up. ” Sure enough, this riddle came up when exactly that was happening. I’d asked a group of friends if they had any good riddles or jokes, and two of my friends went back and forth with them. This was the first one that was mentioned.


When I first heard the informant tell this riddle in the group, I had no idea it was an actually important riddle to him. At the time, I was just jotting the riddles down as they were told back and forth between this participant and another. I guess it would make sense, though, that his favorite riddle would come first.

This would be an example of a true riddle as are most of the riddles the informant would be talking about. Those that have a traditional question and answer, that can be guess based on clues hidden in the riddle itself. I believe this participant does it, however, to test an acquaintances intelligence. Not that he expects the other person to guess it correctly, but I think he expects them to enjoy it because of how clever it is. This participant definitely values his intellect and the intellect of his friends, so that would make sense.



“That Man’s Father Is My Father’s Son” Riddle

The informant in a 26-year old man, born and raised in Long Island, New York.


BF: My uncle used to tell us all riddles. He’d tell us the riddle, but he wouldn’t tell us the answer until we were thirteen. And the cruel thing was that he’d tell us when we were–me and my cousins–were all like ten years old, so we’d have to wait years. We should’ve just googled them, if we’d known.

What was one of those riddles?

BF: This one, it’s the only one I still remember. So, a guy is visiting another guy in jail. The guard asks Guy A if he knows Guy B, and A says “Brothers and sisters, I have none. But that man’s father is my father’s son”.

So who is the prisoner?

BF: My uncle never even told me the answer, I forgot until I was seventeen! So, “that man’s father is my father’s son”. “My father’s son” just means “myself”, so “that man’s father is myself”.. so he is the guy’s father–the prisoner is the son. The father refers to himself, which is why it’s tricky. 


The riddle is told in many different ways with other setups, but the main question usually remains the same.

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.

Folk speech

American Riddle

Riddle: At night they come without being fetched, and by day they are lost without being stolen.

Answer: Stars

            My friend said that he heard this riddle in elementary school from a friend of his who heard it from his mother. He recalls that his friend fittingly told him this when they went on a fieldtrip to the Griffith Park Observatory. Both the informant and his friend don’t know the origins of this particular riddle. The riddle is rather simple, and doesn’t require quite as much thought as other riddles out there.

When I was younger, I heard a variation of this riddle, though the question part of the riddle was very similarly phrased. Instead of the answer being “stars,” the answer was a “shooting star.” I heard this particular riddle from my uncle. When I was younger, I would sometimes let myself sit for hours while trying to figure out riddles, with this being no exception. I would detest when my uncle would give away the answer. This particular riddle is almost pretty to me though, as I find the night sky both beautiful and fascinating.


Albacore Riddle


Albacore Riddle

Personal Background:

Lillian Tran is a 19 year old student at the University of California, Irvine studying journalism. She has grown up in a one hundred percent Vietnamese family, and is very proud of many traditions her family has.


There is one riddle she loves to tell since it is very difficult.

“A man who took a bite of an albacore sandwich, and then he started to cry. Why did he do that?”

The way this type of riddle works that the people who are answering it can only ask yes or no questions to the person who asked it. Through a series of questions, it turns out that the man is blind, and at one time, he was on a desert island with his friend and his wife. His friend had told him his wife had died and that they should eat the albacore they had. The man is crying because the albacore sandwich he is eating does not taste like the albacore he ate on island, meaning that he was not eating the albacore, but he was eating his wife, and he could not tell since he was blind.

Lillian first heard this riddle on Thanksgiving with her family. She had to sit at the kid’s table since she was younger. To pass the time, her cousins started telling her riddles. It scared her more than anything. She was afraid something like this could actually happen to her. It has made her afraid of albacore sandwiches ever since.


Riddles tend to not be very popular in the United States, and tend to be seen more for children. They really play on the power of words, and can have different meaning for different people. This is known as a “true riddle” since there are enough clues asked throughout that the person should be able to answer.

To me, this riddle is a way to stay connected with her family and to have a good time with her friends. It is a fun party trick to be able to come up with this riddle, and it can bring a conversation to the room. It is a way to get people in a room to converse when things get tense because everyone has to agree on questions to ask. Riddles are a fun way to play brain games and come up with games for everyone.