American Humor Part 3 – Riddles

by | Apr 29, 2024

Understanding American Humor – Part 3: Riddles –

Understanding what people think is funny—and why—is a challenge for anyone who tries to learn a new language or appreciate a new culture. The topics covered in these articles will help you to join in the fun with your American friends.  Why knows, you might even become a great joke-teller yourself!

Part 1 of the series was about the foundational form of humor known as puns. You should take a look at that article as it’s a great place to start. Part 2 of the series builds on the concept of puns by examining knock-knock jokes. Here in Part 3, we’ll look at another important style of American humor: Riddles.

 

Building Block Number 3: The Riddle

What is a riddle, you say?  In its most basic form, a riddle is a kind of word game that provides a statement or question with a hidden answer or meaning. Riddles are guessing games in which finding the meaning requires clever thinking that goes beyond the information that you are first given.

The solution to a riddle may require recognizing a pun hidden in the statement. It may also reference real-world knowledge in ways that are hard to understand. And some riddles have no serious logic at all, but instead provide nonsense answers just to be funny. 

In this article, we’ll explore all 3 types of riddles:

Riddle Type 1: The Conundrum

A conundrum-style riddle involves a clever or confusing use of words that hides the meaning or solution. Most often, conundrum riddles are punning riddles (if you haven’t yet read the article on puns, pause here to review that before going on).

Take a look at this famous example of a conundrum riddle:

American Humor Riddles

Q: What’s black and white and red all over?

A: A newspaper!

Like most punning jokes, this riddle may be hard to understand if you are reading it silently.  Instead, try saying it out loud: ‘What’s black and white and red all over’ can sound like…

  1. Three colors: black, white, and red
  2. Two colors and an action: black and white, and being read

Newspapers are black and white, and they are read all over!

However, that riddle is so well known that it has become rather boring. So people might change it up a little:

American Humor Riddles

Q: What’s black and white and red all over?

A: A penguin with a sunburn!

Notice that this second riddle takes away the punning meaning of the first; the humor comes from the hearer expecting a pun when there actually is none. So the hearer must make a decision: is the person who is asking me the riddle the type of person to go with a traditional (punning) meaning or are they trying to trick me with a non-traditional solution? The solution depends as much on the personality of the two people as it does on the information in the riddle.

Of course, the conundrums above are fairly simple, the kinds that are popular with kids. Punning riddles can get far more difficult to solve! See if you can answer this one:

Farmer Bob had an old barrel full of water that weighed 50 kilograms. Farmer Bob put something in the barrel and, after that, it weighed less. What did the farmer put in the barrel?
American Humor Riddles

Riddle Type 2: The Logic Riddle

Logic riddles (also called enigmas) are less of a ‘joke’ than conundrums are. In fact, in one of the most famous logic riddles, The Riddle of the Sphinx, the supposed punishment for anyone unable to answer was instant death!

Rather than relying on puns as conundrums do, logic riddles usually use metaphor to hide their meaning. Metaphor is when you describe one thing in terms of something else that is not directly related; for example, saying that “eyes are the windows of the body” is a metaphor.

American Humor Riddles

Here’s an example of a logic riddle:

Q: Two fathers and two sons sat down to breakfast. Each person ate one egg, and exactly three eggs were eaten. How can this be?

A: There are not four people; there are only three: a grandfather, a father, and a grandson. So one of the fathers is both a father and a son at the same time.

Did you get the answer? Logic riddles can be fun, but they can also be very frustrating! Again, the key difference between logic riddles and conundrums is whether they use puns or not—although sometimes the difference is small, as in the famous Riddle of the Sphinx that I mentioned earlier:

Q: Which creature in the morning goes on four legs, at mid-day on two, and in the evening on three, and the more legs it has, the weaker it be?

A: Man. In the morning of life (as a child), he crawls on four legs. In the mid-day of life (as an adult), he walks on two, and in the evening of life (as an old man), he walks with a cane—his ‘third leg.’ The baby with four legs is weakest; the adult with two legs is strongest.

American Humor Riddles

While this is a famous logic riddle, it might also qualify as a kind of conundrum because different meanings of the word ‘leg’ are being used, including legs, a walking stick, and even a baby’s hands.

Riddle Type 3: The Nonsense Riddle

Last but not least is my favorite kind of riddle: nonsense riddles. If solving logic riddles or conundrums seems like too much work, this may be the kind of riddle for you!

Nonsense riddles are not logical. Some are incredibly illogical, which is what makes them fun (for some people; others find them very annoying). Occasionally, nonsense riddles will incorporate puns or even some sophisticated logic, but for the most part, their main goal is to make you smile by including something completely unexpected.

American Humor Riddles

Here’s an example of a nonsense riddle:

Q: What is brown and sticky?

A: A stick.

Huh? Did that make sense to you? And if it did, you might be saying, “Wait, isn’t that a pun?” And yes, you’re right: when you hear the word ‘sticky,’ you are probably thinking of something like glue or sugar candy. But this riddle uses the rules of English vocabulary to create a brand-new adjective: ‘sticky,’ meaning ‘stick-like.’  (After all, ‘homey’ means ‘home-like,’ and ‘wavy’ means ‘wave-like,’ right?)

That’s what makes nonsense riddles funny: they offer a solution that is usually completely unexpected. Though if you’re very clever or very nonsensical yourself, you might guess the answer. Try this one:

Q: How can you tell if a snake is poisonous or not?

A: Let it bite you.

American Humor Riddles

Okay, that one was definitely terrible advice. Kids, don’t try this at home! But if you first spent a few seconds thinking of good (and safe) ways to know if a snake is poisonous or not, then maybe this ridiculously simple and dangerous answer came as a surprise that made you smile. That’s the whole point of nonsense riddles! And besides, it’s technically true: you would learn a lot about the snake very quickly if it bit you!

More Riddles

Now that you’ve seen how riddles work, give some of the following a try! Try to guess the answers, and also figure out what kind of riddles they are. And which ones do you think are funny?

After trying to guess the answer, you can check yourself by clicking the button below.

What kind of room has no doors or windows?
Why did the man throw the butter out the window?
What weighs 5,000 pounds and wears glass slippers?
What has many keys but can't open any locks?
If a red house is made of red bricks and a yellow house is made of yellow bricks, then what is a greenhouse made of?
I'm tall when I'm young, but the older I get, the shorter I am. What am I?
A rooster is sitting on the exact top of a barn roof. When it lays an egg, which side will the egg roll down: north or south?

Try sharing some of these riddles with a friend! Also if you have questions or additional riddles, feel free to post them below.

Thanks for taking a look at this guide to American Humor!

If you really want to challenge yourself with some logic riddles, you’ll enjoy this:
What Am I?: A Collection of Traditional Word Riddles by Zack Guido (available here on Amazon)

You might also enjoy this article about 4 Steps to Confident Conversations in English

 

Note: As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases, at no additional cost to you. Recommended resources are carefully selected and help support the operation of my blog. Thanks for clicking!

0 Comments

Mark Pedrin

Mark Pedrin

Author

Mark is an English instructor and communication specialist. He loves helping people develop language skill and insight so that they can reach their personal and professional goals.