A word game or joke, comprising a question or statement couched in deliberately puzzling terms, propounded for solving by the hearer/reader using clues embedded within that wording. Closely related to other forms including the conundrum (which relies more on puns) and the catch (joking questions which pretend to be riddles), the riddle's distinguishing mark is its use of metaphor. Riddles have a very long and respectable history, and there is hardly a literature, oral or written, in which riddles do not occur, often in the form of riddle contests. Six of the *ballads included in *Child's collection include riddle motifs, and they occur in numerous other songs and tales.
   In England, the riddle was popular with adults for centuries, at both a domestic level and in literary circles, existing as a party or parlour game well into the 19th century, but from that time it gradually lost favour until it reached its present condition, surviving only in children's humour, and in certain well-defined genres such as in the * Christmas cracker. In children's hands riddles are alive and well, and they are very popular with all ages. Riddles are usually the first form of joke mastered by the child, partly because of their satisfying formula which, once mastered, can serve as vehicle for a range of ideas, in which the child can test the boundaries of humour, and the formula is readily understood by everyone. The riddle repertoire is constantly replenished with new items on old lines, but includes a core which has been around a long time. The Opies showed that several of the riddles they collected in the 1950s had been current since the 16th century in English, and even further back abroad - 'How deep is the ocean? - A stone's throw'; 'How many balls of string would it take to reach the moon? - One if it was long enough'.
   ■ Mark Bryant, Dictionary of Riddles (1990); McCosh, 1979; Opie and Opie, 1959: 73-86; Susan Edmunds, 'The Riddle Ballad and the Riddle', L&L 5:2 (1986), 35-46.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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