USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘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 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

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


Our conversation went as follows:

Matthew: “You walk into a warehouse and see a man hanging 30 feet in the air from a noose. All you see is a puddle of water and a fan that is turned on. What happened?”

Me: “Is this a riddle?”

Matthew: “Yes, what happened?”

Me: “Did he spill the water?”

Matthew: “No.”

Me: “But he is in fact dead?”

Matthew: “Yes, with a noose around his neck.”

Me: “I’m not sure, tell me.”

Matthew: “He stood on the top of a tall block of ice and put the noose around his neck. He had turned the fan on, so it slowly melted block of ice. After time he is left he’s hanging in the air, melted ice is the puddle of water you see.”


Background Information: Matthew is a 19-year old male born and raised in Los Angeles, CA. He is currently a sophomore at USC.

Context: Matthew shared this story with me in a conversation about holiday traditions with our families over coffee.

Analysis: I find riddles very compelling because unlike a joke, they require creative thought to be solved or understood. I never think to use riddles, as I do not know many, so I am always fascinated when someone finds a way to integrate a riddle within their everyday speech. I had heard a very different rendition of the riddle that Matthew said to me before, but it was different enough that I couldn’t initially see the relation to remember the answer. This is another quality of riddles that makes them so interesting: they demonstrate extreme multiplicity, and you will always find different wording to the riddle and answer depending on who is saying the riddle.


“Agua pasa por mi casa, cate de mi corazón, lleva un vestido verde, y amarillo el corazón,” Mexico

This riddle was collected from a friend, who was born and raised in Mexico City, Mexico and is 21 years old. The riddle “agua pasa por mi casa, cate de mi corazón, lleva un vestido verde, y amarillo el corazón” translates into English literally as “water passes through my house, cate from my heart, it wears a green dress, and has a yellow heart.” The answer is avocado, for the word in Spanish for it is aguacate, so if it is split in too it becomes “agua” (the word for water) and “cate,” which isn’t an actual word.


My friend says she used to hear it a lot around school as she was growing up. She says she isn’t surprised that avocados were made into a riddle since avocados are very common in Mexico, and she grew up eating them with every single meal.


This riddle is a variation of one I grew up with myself, and it is one of the most popular ones that I can remember from my childhood. It seems that Latin American riddles are a bit more symbolic in that they involved more imagery than American ones.


Erre con Erre

What is being performed?
TV: There’s this little riddle Venezuelan’s teach their children to learn how to roll their “r’s”
AA: How does it go?
TV: Erre con erre cigarro. Erre con erre barril. Rápido corren los carros, cargados de azúcar del
AA: What does it mean?
TV: Nothing real, it’s just a way to practice rolling your “r’s” by saying as many “r” words as
AA: What could it translate to?
TV: I guess roughly it translates to R with R, uh, cigar, R with R, barrell, the cars go fast and
they’re carrying sugar from the railroad. It’s a lot of gibberish.

Why do they know or like this piece? where/who did they learn it from? What does it mean to
AA: Has this helped you?
TV: It actually has. It sticks with you and it’s fun so you get good practice rolling your “r’s.”
AA: What does it mean to you?
TV: I see it as a way I can help my future children embrace their Venezuelan culture and learn
how to speak with an accent when speaking Spanish. The Venezuelan accent is very different
from other Latin American accents, too, so it’s a way to embrace that.
Context of the performance- where do you perform it? History?
AA: Where do you perform this?
TV: It’s mostly performed amongst young children in school as sort of a little competition or
between a parent and a child as practice.

I think this is a very catchy and fun way of practicing rolling “r’s”– something that’s fundamental
to proper pronunciation in Spanish. I think it’s a special trick that gets to be shared with families
and passed down. I also think it’s a celebration of Spanish and a language that is very beautiful
because of it’s pronunciation.

Folk speech

The Inedible Pear Riddle

Main Piece:


Весит груша, нельзя скушать.

– Лампочка.


Vesit grusha, nel’zya skushat’.
– Lampochka.


A pear is hanging, but you cannot eat it.

– Light bulb.

Background Information:

  • Why does informant know this piece?

This was told to him by his childhood friends

  • Where did they learn this piece?


  • What does it mean to them?

It’s an interesting riddle.


This is told by children to other children to play riddle games.

Personal Thoughts:

I have heard a different variant of this riddle, where the answer is “boxing punch bag” instead of a light bulb, since the word for “pear” and “punching bag” in Russian is the same (груша).

Folk speech

The Lock

Main Piece: The Lock

The following was an interview of a Participant/interviewee about a folk riddle that is passed within his community or his school. He is marked as AO. I am marked as DM.

AO: El dia de ahora les quiero hacer una adivinanza. Haber si la pueden adivinar. Es chiquito come un ratón y cuidad la casa como un león. Que es?

DM: I don’t know.

AO: El candado.  


AO: Today I am going to tell you a riddle. Let’s see if you guys can solve it. It is small like a mouse and guards the house like a lion. What is it?

DM: I don’t know.

AO: The lock.


The participant is 56 years old. He grew up in Mexico City, Mexico. Alberto, who is marked as AO, is my grandpa. When I was growing up, my grandpa loved to tell me and my sisters jokes or riddles. He would tell us it helped us develop a different way of thinking. He learned this riddle and I learned this riddle in Spanish, but it makes sense in English as well. Below is a conversation I had with AO for more background/context of the joke, which was originally in Spanish.

DM: Why do you know/ like this riddle?

AO: I like to tell this riddle because it became a motivation to read. All of my books in elementary contained jokes, which made it easier to read.

DM: Where and from who did you learn this riddle from?

AO: I learned this joke in Mexico from an elementary book.  

DM: What does this riddle mean/ signify to you?

AO: Telling jokes or phrases that make people think is a tradition in Mexico. This was a better way to unfold my learning abilities in an enjoyable manner.  

Analysis/ My Thoughts:

Every time I heard this joke I never thought about it as a way to pass time or a game. I think it is important to know that at one point riddles were a form of entertainment in some communities. The fact that elementary books in Mexico that are full of riddles are being read by students is amazing. The students have no idea that their readings contain so much tradition or folklore. The fact is that the riddles that are authored text can be continued to be passed down to other children.