Words & Stuff

xx: What Has It Got in Its Pocketses?

(14 June 1998)

As any algebraist or fan of The X Files knows, x often symbolizes an unknown quantity. This week's column is full of unknown quantities.

In a previous column, I discussed Anglo-Saxon riddles, which used a certain alliterative form and often suggested a risqué answer as well as the mundane one. I neglected to mention, however, that the modern equivalent of such riddles is thriving on the Web, and lives on in the oral tradition.

Of course, not all such riddles are particularly good. There are very common themes, for instance; most of the modern guess-what-I-am riddles I've seen are answered by one of a small set of items: time, wind, fire, water, mirror, leaf, and so on. And some riddles are so vague that any number of answers could apply. Also, most riddles don't care much for rhyme or scansion. Still, I'm pleased that this kind of creative guessing-game is still practiced (and even somewhat popular) -- I like the idea of metaphor as a regular part of everyday life. For more information on modern poem-riddles, see Eric S. Raymond's superb riddles page. (Unfortunately, Sherri Johnson's excellent riddle pages seem to have gone AWOL recently.)

Here are some riddles created and contributed by Jeepsie. Ta doesn't like to give away the answers to riddles; I haven't yet guessed some of these. Feel free to join me in guessing by sending in answers.


Tower for a cold queen;
Death for the donor;
Tickled by a master;
Wealthy is the owner.


Stronger than a mountain,
Slower than a snail;
Blue as a cornflower,
Colder than hail.


A monster, a giant, my size ever grows,
My tale ever stretches, yet only one knows
How fierce is my bite, and how great is my strength,
Which grows and grows with every drink.


Gathers the corn without a word spoken;
First fleece shorn, a circle unbroken;
First choice given to the mountain or worm,
And the forest before a blade or burn.


A story many thousands of years old,
At a single glance it can be told,
Of a queen trapped by her lust for gold,
Unrescued by a knight so bold,
Now a treasure to be bought or sold.


Below your thoughts I am sent [scent] for you;
Above your words I invent [in vent] for you.


Jeepsie is fond of puns and a proponent of the oral tradition; ta wouldn't let me include one particularly punny original riddle on the grounds that writing it down would ruin it. There's something to be said for that -- though there's also something to be said for preserving and disseminating the oral tradition in written form. As the Anglo-Saxons might have put it, the written word is worm-bane, saving thoughts beyond the lives of their originators...

Anyway, here are a couple more riddles, of unknown provenance:


What is it you break even as you name it?


What is it that a contented man desires,
A wealthy man requires,
And a poor man has,
Misers spend, and spendthrifts save,
And all men carry to their grave?


I went on a hunt with a view to kill.
Those that I caught, I kept with me not;
Those I did not are with me still


I was going to include a riddle of my own:

Round and smooth or rough and gritty,
Made of stone but not a city,
Hard as rock, and grey or brown,
Boulders, pebbles, break it down.
Stub your toe, skip on a lake,
Grind your flour before you bake,
Build a church, your soul to save;
Use it then to mark your grave.

But I figured the answer would be too hard to guess, so I'll give it to you: it's a rock. (If you didn't get it, don't be too hard on yourself; rock lyrics are always hard to understand.)


Answers can be found on the reader comments page, except for "Gathers the corn...," which I still haven't guessed.


Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>