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shameless pleading






The correct answer is always “Beats me.”

Dear Word Detective:  Is “riddled” related to “riddle” meaning sieve? — Lee Jackson @VictorianLondon.

And they say serendipity is dead. I turned on my computer this morning and the first thing that caught my eye was this tweet tossing what seemed like a very interesting question into the churning maelstrom that is Twitter. Donning my water wings and pith helmet, I fired up my trusty Oxford English Dictionary and found the answer in two minutes flat. Of course, this being Twitter, a few hundred other people had already answered the question, but by then I was sufficiently intrigued by “riddle” to devote a column to it.

Incidentally, Lee Jackson is the proprietor of the fascinating Dictionary of Victorian London website ( which is, in fact, not a dictionary but a huge and highly authoritative exploration of the social history of Victorian London. Mr. Jackson has written several books about daily life in Victorian London and even a walking guide for visitors seeking what remains of that most atmospheric period in the city’s history.

There are two entirely separate “riddle” nouns in English, each with a related verb. (There’s actually a third “riddle” noun, an English regional term for the red ochre pigment, also known as “reddle” or “ruddle,” sometimes used to mark sheep. I’m gonna go ahead and ignore that one.)

The older of the two “riddle” nouns dates back to Old English, and comes from the same Germanic roots that gave us “to read.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines the contemporary meaning of “riddle” to be “A question or statement intentionally phrased to require ingenuity in ascertaining its answer or meaning, frequently used as a game or pastime; an enigma; a conundrum.” That sense assumes that the “riddle” has, in fact, a proper answer that can be discovered, but “riddle” has also long been used to mean “a perplexing mystery or problem” or even “an enigmatic or mysterious person or entity” (“I am still a riddle they know not what to make of.” Jonathan Swift, 1711).

The other sort of “riddle,” also dating back to Old English, is a coarse-meshed sieve, the kind of thing you’d use to separate sand from gravel. This “riddle” is an alteration of the archaic English noun “ridder” (sieve), which also comes from Germanic roots, in this case related to the Latin words “cribrum” (sieve) and “cernere” (to separate, also the rood of our “discern”).

Both “riddle” nouns have related verb forms. For the “perplexing puzzle” noun we have “to riddle,” meaning “to ponder a riddle” or “to solve a riddle,” as well as “to pose a riddle,” traditionally introduced by the phrase “Riddle me this” or something similar (“Riddle me, riddle me right, Guess where I was last Friday night?” 1889).

For the “sieve” sort of “riddle,” we have “to riddle,” meaning “to run something through a riddle, e.g., separate corn from chaff” or, in a figurative sense, “to separate one kind of thing from another (e.g., athletes from couch potatoes) via some sort of test or standard.” But the most common sense today of the verb “to riddle” today is “to fill with holes, like those in a riddle,” usually with bullets or other ordnance (although clothes moths can do a good job of riddling too). An extended sense that arose in the 19th century uses “riddle” to mean “to permeate or pervade with something undesirable,” as in a government or industry “riddled with corruption.”

1 comment to Riddle

  • howard

    Dear Word Detective, I’m guessing the third “riddle” is from Northern England, referring to dye used to mark the chests of male sheep to help keep track of which females had been serviced in breeding season. Is that the regional dialect that you alluded to?

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