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The Proverb and Riddle as Folk Enthymemes

Thomas Green and William Pepicello

The Proverb and Riddle as Folk Enthymemes1

The relationship of proverbs to riddles has been expressed traditionally in terms of one basic similarity and one basic difference. Both genres generally are held to be grounded in metaphor; however, the proverb metaphor is invoked to clarify, while the riddle image is invoked to confuse. This latter difference is frequently related to a structural distinction between the two genres, namely the statement format of proverbs vs. the question format of riddles.

Alan Dundes (1975), however, suggests that proverbs and riddles share two important structural similarities. First, he points out that both genres contain descriptive elements embedded in topic-comment constructions.2 Second, both genres have two general types, oppositional and non-oppositional. In the former category are proverbs like "No news is good news" and riddles like "What has eyes and cannot see? A potato." In the latter category are proverbs like "Times is money" and riddles like "Thirty-two horses on a red hill/Now they stomp/Now they chomp/Now they stand still. Teeth." In each case, the proverb or riddle consists of a descriptive element, or topic, and a comment. In the case of riddles, the topic must be guessed, while the topic in proverbs, by virtue of contextual information, is assumed to be shared by speaker and listener.

Dundes points out (p. 51) another feature of context; it often dictates whether a given text is interpreted as a riddle or a proverb. In the specific case of proverbs, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (1973) underscores the importance of context for interpretation of a given use of a proverb, and explores sources of potential ambiguity in proverbs. Among other sources of ambiguity she notes that proverbs express relative rather than absolute truth, and that the situations that provoke the usage of a proverb may be evaluated in more than one way. Michael D. Lieber (1984) focuses on the analogical aspects of proverbs, building on Seitel's (1969) demonstration that the analogic relationship between the proverb image and the real-world situation to which it is applied is ambigous according to context. Lieber extends this analysis to show that the analogic structure of proverb texts may vary even within a single context, i.e., that a given proverb uttered in a specific context may be subject to multiple interpretations depending on how the speaker and listener analyze the analogy inherent in the proverb.

Lieber also relates the ability to use a proverb persuasively to the repertoire of rhetorical strategies found in a given culture. In this paper we shall expand upon the notion of proverbs as a rhetorical form, focussing on the relation of form and function. We shall then claim that the relationship of form to function that exists in proverbs holds also for riddles, thus reinforcing Dundes' observation. This common relationship also reveals proverbs and riddles to be similar rhetorical forms with similar functions in the culture.

Lieber correctly points out that analogic reasoning in general is subject to the vagaries of ambiguity. He argues persuasively, for example, that the pair theory:scientists can be matched reasonably to the following pairs:

  1. hammer:carpenter
  2. blueprint:architect
  3. blueprint:carpenter
  4. theatrical production:critic
  5. portofolio:career
    1. (1984:427)

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The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 11:2000 & Issue 12:2000, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

We begin our discussion by examining how riddles function with reference to basic pragmatic aspects of normal communication. A fundamental pragmatic principle governing utilitarian conversation has been defined by H.P. Grice (1975) as the Cooperative Principle. This principle consists of four maxims:

  1. Quantity: give the right amount of information 
  2. Quality:: try to make your contribution one that is true
  3. Relation: be relevant
  4. Manner: be perspicacious

In the riddle performance one assumes that maxims 2 and 3 are in effect by virtue of the rules of a riddle performance itself. I.e., if 2 and 3 are not in effect, a riddle cannot be potentially soluble. One also assumes that maxims 1 and 4 are flouted in the following way. The riddler presents only minimally sufficient information in the riddle to allow a respondent to discover its logic, i.e., the riddler presents his text so that it is potentially (though generally not readily) "soluble." However, the key to the logic of the riddle is presented in a covert manner, i.e., it is not perspicacious.

Consider, for example, the following riddles:

  1. What's black and white and red/read all over? Newspaper. 
  2. What fruit is on a penny? A date.

These riddles, and many more in Anglo-American culture, play on linguistic ambiguity for their wit. In 1) the ambiguity is between the simple adjective red and the irregular past participle of the verb to read. In 2) we find simple lexical ambiguity, wherein the utterance date may refer to either a fruit or a designated year stamped on a coin. In both cases, the question-answer sequence contains sufficient information for the riddler to discern the logic (i.e., wit) by which the sequence makes sense. However, this logic is not apparent and requires that the riddler detect the crucially ambiguous element (red/read and date in the examples) in order to "get" the riddle.

Following Geoffery Leech (1983:2ff.), we can summarize our analysis to this point as follows. The rules of grammar which determine form (locutionary acts) are fundamentally conventional and account for the question-and-answer form of riddles. The principles of pragmatics are fundamentally non-conventional, i.e., they are motivated in terms of conversational goals. In the case of riddle performance, the goal is to bring all participants in the interaction to an understanding of and agreement about the special logic of individual riddles. Clearly this goal is not the same as, nor an inversion of, that of questions, which is to elicit information. Thus, a pragmatic analysis of riddles indicates that they do not function as questions.

What a pragmatic analysis reveals is that riddles seem to function as enthymemes in the same way as proverbs. That is, the riddler performs an utterance which contains a non-scientific logic and a non-manifest key, the logical link which the riddlee seeks to discover. The form of the riddle is rhetorical in that the special logic is only one of several which may be applied to the riddle (since riddles function by ambiguity, either grammatical or metaphorical), and so is probabilistic. In order for the riddle act to be considered successful, riddler and riddlee must both understand and agree to the viability of this logic.

The enthymeme patterns which emerge from both proverbs and riddles reinforce the structural similarities noted by Dundes in these two genres. Moreover, such an analysis as we have proposed allows for extension in other directions. To present only one example, it explains why many riddles do not adopt a question-answer format, yet allows us to relate this type of riddle to those which do adopt the question-answer format. Simply, if riddles do not have the illocutionary force of questions, they are not constrained to be realized through interrogative syntax. Indeed, logical progressions of the type represented in riddles are as easily presented in the form of declarative statements. However, another classical form of logical argumentation is precisely that which proceeds by a series of questions and answers which seek not to illicit information so much as to construct an argument, viz. the Socratic Method.


Previously published in Proverbium 3 (1986), pp. 33-45.
Permission to publish this article granted by Proverbium (Editor: Prof. Wolfgang Mieder, University of Vermont, USA). 

1 An earlier version of this essay was presented at the 1984 meetings of the American Folklore Society in San Diego, California.

2 See also Georges and Dundes (1963:113).


Aristotle, Rethoric. Choose your edition.

Bitzer, L.F. 1959, "Aristotle's Enthymeme Revisited." Quarterly Journal of Speech. 45:399-408.

Dundes, Alan 1975, "On the Structure of the Proverb," Proverbium 25:961-973. Reprinted in Wolfgang Mieder and Alan Dundes, eds., The Wisdom of Many: Essays on the Proverb. New York: Garland, 1981.

Georges, Robert A. and Alan Dundes, 1963, "Toward a Structural Definition of the Riddle." Journal of American Folklore 76:111-118.

Goodwin, P. and J. Wenzel 1979, "Proverbs and Practical Reasoning: A Study in Socio-logic," Quarterly Journal of Speech 65: 289-302, also in Mieder and Dundes.

Grice, H.P. 1975, "Logic and Conversation," in P. Cole and J.L. Morgan eds., Syntax and Semantics, Vol. 3: Speech Acts. New York: Academic Press.

Jason, Heda 1971, "Proverbs in Society: The Problem of Meaning and Function," Proverbium 17:617-622

Justin, J.L. 1965, How to Do Things With Words. London: Oxford University Press.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara 1973, "Toward a Theory of Proverb Meaning," Proverbium 22:821-827. Also in Mieder and Dundes.

Leech, Geoffrey 1983. Principles of Pragmatics. London: Longman.

Lieber, Michael 1984, "Analogic Ambiguity: A Paradox of Proverb Usage," Journal of American Folklore 97:423-441.

Otorny, Andrew 1980, "The Role of Similarity in Similes and Metaphors," in Andrew Otorny, ed., Metaphor and Thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 186-201.

Seitel, Peter 1969, "Proverbs: A Social Use of Metaphor," Genre 2:143-161.

Thomas Green
Department of English
Texas A&M Unversity
College Station, Texas 77843

William Pepicello
Department of English
Hahnemann University
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19102

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