Riddles are everywhere nowadays. In the days before the internet, they were thought of as only for the highly intelligent. But since the dawn of Facebook and Instagram, anyone can create and share their own riddles. Some of them are stimulating, some of them as way too easy to easy qualify as riddles, and others are just plain stupid.
One riddle that I want to focus on today is the one about Penny’s children. It does like this
‘Penny has five children. The first one is called January. The second is called February. The third is called March. The fourth is called April. What is the name of the fifth.’
The answer is “What”.
When you first look at the riddle, your first response is likely to be ‘May’. This would make sense as all her other children are named after months. So it would make sense for her to continue the trend.
However, when you look carefully at the riddle, or more specifically, the final sentence, you will notice a lack of a question mark.
This isn’t a question but rather a statement. It’s not asking what the fifth child is called, but rather stating his name. “What”.
This riddle raises the question, “What is a riddle?”.
Usually when we think of riddles, we think about questions that don’t have a straight forward or obvious answer.
Some of them have a right answer such as “What runs but has no legs?” A tap.
Others are more of a source of debate than a clear answer such as “What would happen if Pinocchio says ‘My nose will now grow’?”
Although most riddles are clearly questions we do have some that aren’t for example. “I get wetter as I dry”. Even tough this isn’t explicitly a question, there is the implication of the phrase “What am I” afterwards. Making it an implied question, rather than an actual question.
What is a riddle?
Knowing what a riddle is. It’s now up for debate as to whether the “riddle” at the centre of this article is even a riddle.
If a riddle is supposed to be a question, is it fair to refer to a general statement as a riddle?
I would say no. It’s not a riddle. That’s like saying “Penny’s youngest child is called May” qualifies as a riddle.
It’s not even a question, and therefore shouldn’t even have an answer. You don’t need to figure out what the fifth child is called because it’s not even a question.
Origin of the question mark
The addition of a question mark would turn the statement into a riddle. But where do question marks come from.
The question mark comes from the Latin word “qvaestio” which means “question”. In the middle ages, the word was shortened to qo. And through time, the letters were merged into the “?” symbol that we use to refer to questions.
The first question mark was used in the 1580s by Henry Dunham.
The interobang (‽) has now died out of use. But it used to be a common punctuation symbol. It’s a combination of “?” And “!”. Today, many of us use “?!” online, so it’s likely only a matter of time before the interobang makes a return.
Why do we need question marks?
The question mark has become an official part of our language. But is it really needed. Surely a question that starts with “Who, What, Where, When, Why, or How” is already a question by it’s very nature?
However the “riddle” in this article proves this wrong. In this example, “What”is the name of person and it is not proving that the statement is infact not a question.
We also have to consider questions that come about as a result of shock for example ‘Trump is the president?’. Without the question mark, it’s merely a statement, but with it, we we implying that it comes as such a shock, we’re throwing it into question.
Although the riddle in this article, isn’t technically a riddle, it does have some aspects of a riddle.
The main one being that it diverts our expectations. What separates a riddle from simply a question is that a riddle makes you think hard, and the obvious answer isn’t always the correct one.
This one does divert expectations as we expect it to be a question when in reality it’s a statement.
A man called “What”
Throughout history, there have been people called “Wat”.
The most notable is “Wat Tyler”. He was the leader of the peasants revolt in 1381. Because of him, peasants were given some rights.
Today, it’s common for parents to give their children strange spellings of common names. For example, Chloe can be spelt Khloe and Amy could be spelt Aimee.
If Wat becomes a common name again, then it’s only reasonable to assume that “What” could also become a common spelling of the name “Wat”.
It doesn’t matter that it’s not a riddle
Although the “Penny’s children” riddle might not technically be a riddle, that doesn’t mean it serves no purpose.
It still fulfils it’s intended purpose of making you think twice. It brings to light how we look at a sentence and automatically make assumptions about it. It shows the importance of using the correct punctuation. And makes us realise that just because in the past there has always been a pattern, that doesn’t mean the pattern is always going to continue.
So although it isn’t a riddle, it still does most of the things that riddles do.
There isn’t an answer to the riddle ‘Penny has five children. The first one is called January. The second is called February. The third is called March. The fourth is called April. What is the name of the fifth.’ because it isn’t a riddle, or even a question.
The lack of the question mark turns it from a question into a statement.
But just because it isn’t a riddle, that doesn’t mean it’s not thought provoking.
Hopefully now, you understand more about what a riddle is, where is question mark comes from, and that calling a child “What” isn’t as absurd as it might first seem.