A riddle, sometimes called a "brain teaser," is usually a question that requires clever or unexpected thinking for its answer. In general conversation, someone typically presents a question to another person who accepts the challenge of guessing the correct response. The guesser may get one or multiple guesses and sometimes the asker gives clues, but this is not required. Riddles usually have only one correct answer, and it is commonly provided in the end, even if the guesser does not think of it.
Riddles with Double Meanings
The structure of a riddle typically uses one of several techniques to create a twist, which makes it difficult to guess. One common technique involves double meanings. If the double meaning is in the words of the question, then the language creates intentional confusion. The asker intends one meaning and hopes that the guesser will understand the words differently.
Here is an example: "Railroad crossing, watch out for cars; can you spell that without any r's?" In this riddle, the asker intends for the guesser to understand the word "that" as a demonstrative pronoun and try to spell "Railroad crossing, watch out for cars" without any "r"s, which is impossible. The goal is really to spell the word "that" without any "r"s; the first half of the sentence is used to make the listener confused as he or she hears the second part.
When the double-meaning word or words are not stated by the asker, the riddle may require that the listener understand it as a pun. An example of this would be "How do we know the cook was a terrible person?" The answer is: "Because he beats the eggs and whips the cream." Here, the cook's "cruelty" is understood from the multiple meanings of "beats" and "whips" as both forms of punishment and culinary techniques.
Riddles that Create False Concepts
Another method for deception in riddles involves a deliberate attempt to make a listener come to a false conclusion. Here is an example: "A woman has seven children, half of them are boys; how can this be possible?" This riddle relies on the idea that the guesser is likely to assume that if half of the children are boys, the other half must be girls; with an odd number, this is impossible. By recognizing this assumption as false, however, one can reach the correct answer: if all the children are boys, then half of them would also be boys, even though three and a half children does not normally make much sense.
Riddles with Clues
Some of the most common types of riddles have clues to the solution within them, but have to be thought about very carefully to be fully understood. One of the most famous riddles in western civilization is the Riddle of the Sphinx, commonly phrased as "What goes on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and on three legs in the evening?" The answer is "mankind," as people crawl at birth or in the morning of their lives, walk on two legs throughout the middle of their lives, and may use a cane or third leg toward the "evening" of their lives.
Riddles in Popular Culture
There are several popular formats for riddles, such as songs and games or contests of intellect. The traditional rhyme that begins, "I gave my love a cherry that had no stone," is an example of a riddle song. The contest between the hobbit Bilbo Baggins and the creature Gollum in The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien is one of the most famous riddle games in popular culture. In Batman comics, the character called "The Riddler" often stages elaborate crimes and uses riddles to give Batman clues about his capers, testing his intelligence against the hero.