ELEKTROLORISTI 1/1997, 4. vuosikerta
Julkaisija: Suomen Kansantietouden Tutkijain Seura ry., Joensuu
ISSN 1237-8593, URL: http://www.joensuu.fi/~loristi/1_97/kai197.html
E-mail: loristi@cc.joensuu.fi

Sexual riddles: the test of the listener

Annikki Kaivola-Bregenhøj

Riddles are among the most outspoken expressions of folk eroticism. The use of sexual vocabulary is, however, rare in riddles, unlike in other forms of erotic folklore. Few sexual riddles have until recently been published; in most cases they have for reasons of propriety been forgotten, which give examples of sexual riddles. One rare exception was the Finnish clergyman Christfrid Ganander, who published the first collection of Finnish riddles, Aenigmata Fennica, as early as 1783. Ganander appreciated the value of living tradition and did not censor his publication. In preparing a new edition of his book he was, however, obliged to omit 39 riddles considered to be improper and banal. These included riddles referring to the Church, and certain sexual ones. There are numerous examples of puritanical publishers (see Hart 1964:138-141). The most renowned among them is Archer Taylor, who in the chapter headed Erotic Scenes in his work English Riddles (1951:687-688) mentions innocent answers given to sexual riddles but no images with a double meaning. The following riddle type 1425-1428, most obviously of a sexual nature, has, however, escaped Taylor's sieve:

Something round, split in the middle
Surrounded by hair, and water comes out. - Eye.
(ER 1425)

It has quite rightly been pointed out that the bashful publishers are responsible for creating the highly proper yet misleading picture of folklore as something that is almost antiseptically devoid of sensuality (Launonen 1966:374). Yet this is a living tradition, and one still in use: sexual riddles and jokes are not merely a past form of entertainment, since they are continuously favoured by both adults and children (see Brown 1973 for examples).

Sexual riddles are in their forms of expression usually of two different types. Among the most common ones are images disguised as sexual and arousing erotic fantasies that do not actually mention a single improper word (e.g. "Spread open the fuzz, stick a bare thing in" or "What four-letter word begins with f and ends with k, and if it doesn't work you can use your fingers?"). But because the image inevitably sets the respondent's imagination seeking for a sexual answer, he is surprised when offered the innocent answer "hand in mitten" (FR 161) or "fork" (Dundes & Georges 1962:225). Far rarer are the riddles in which the answer is given quite frankly as either sexual intercourse or the male or female sexual organs, sometimes in a way that is coarse. ("Buried when alive; Pulled out when dead. - Penis". Hart 1964:149). In any case the answer is always unexpected, and this surprise element is in fact regarded as typical in obscene folklore and in jokelore in general (Dundes & Georges 1962:221).

The old lady pitted it an' patted it; The old man down with his breeches an' at it. - She made up the bed, and he undressed and got into bed. (Boggs 1934:321)

Spread open the fuzz, stick a bare thing in. - Hand in mitten. (FR 161)

The next riddle, however, hints at the male sexual organ:

About six inches long, an' a mighty pretty size; Not a lady but will take it between her thighs. - The lefthand horn on a lady's side saddle. (Boggs 1934:323)

And the true referent of this riddle is the female sexual organ:

An odd girl whose private parts are very soft. - Banana. (Blacking 1961:22)

Among the most popular innocent answers to Finnish riddles are churning and draw well, in which a long object plunged deep into a vessel greatly misleads the guesser. One expert on the riddle tradition writes:

"'A woman on the ground, a man in a tree, a man's balls in woman's mouth' was a typical riddle because every household had its draw well. I recall that the girls would try to answer these suggestive riddles quickly if they happened to know the answer so that the boys would not have time to smirk." (SKS. K.Harju AK 2. 1966)

The vocabulary and imagery of sexual riddles centre around expressions suited to double entendre (Harleman Stewart 1983: 47). Sometimes an innocent answer seems so contrived as to be inconsistent (e.g. the riddle about the man's penis).

Swedish riddles draw a distinction between male and female actors. The man represents sexual egocentrism, male assessments and concepts of women and women's sexual properties, reactions and behaviour. By contrast, the woman is as the main character of a riddle receptive and passive.(Lövkrona 1991:272-273.) The following riddle may be regarded as the ultimate in active and passive sexual relations:

Father's was stiff when he came in, and he laid it on mother's hairy thing, but when mother awoke father's was slack and mother's hairy thing was wet? - Father came home when mother was sleeping and laid his stiff frozen gloves on mother's woolly cloth. When mother awoke the gloves had melted and the woolly cloth was wet.

As a rule sexual riddles are, however, dominated by the act, not its performers. As means of expression sexual riddles usually keep to the middle of the road, deliberately presenting the image in an ambiguous manner. At the same time they nevertheless incite their listeners to sexual fantasy. Faults in style or deviations from normal are thus easy to spot. Most often the reason for the blunder is that the inventor of the riddle makes the mistake of describing things too graphically, so that the image loses its ambiguity, e.g.:

Uncle's prick stands at the door to Auntie's quim. - Well bucket and well. (FR 927)

From cunt to cunt it snaps. - Pot hooks. (FR 1154)

Whereas the most wide-spread sexual riddles in the Folklore Archive of the Finnish Literature Society run to more than 500 variants, the two examples I have quoted appear only twice. Both the error of style and the circulation indicate that the riddler was not wholly competent as an image inventor; these riddles never became tradition favoured and used by many.

There is, however, another possible interpretation. Outspoken sexual images of precisely this type are dominant in, for example, Cheremis riddles. They may in fact represent a type of sexual riddle that was never even intended to have a double meaning.

Many erotic riddles are international, though it is difficult to gain any precise picture of their distribution and frequencies in view of the small volume of material published so far. Suggestive riddles used to be regarded as age-old ritual questions (Schultz 1912:96), but also as relatively recent lore flourishing at the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the modern era. It is thought that they were invented by itinerant scholars in the 16th century (Peuckart 1938:107).

The traditional contexts and users of sexual riddles

We do have some information on the contexts in which traditional sexual riddles were used. Among groups of young people this lore has always clearly served the function of raising the erotic temperature. In the farming community there were some jobs done by the young people of the village together, and these situations provided a setting for the transmission of oral tradition. V.E.V. Wessman (1940:183) described the verbal merry-making of a Finnish working community as follows:

"In the autumn the malt was sweetened in a malt sauna and spirits were brewed. Usually the work was done by the young girls from the farm. It was a laborious job, because it had to be watched over day and night. The time nevertheless passed quickly, because as soon as the boys caught a whiff of the malt, they sought out the girls and helped them pass the time by dreaming up all sorts of pranks. One popular entertainment was posing riddles for the girls to answer. And the boys were indeed sharp: for many riddles lead one's thoughts to something that would make a girl blush and giggle, whereas the object to be guessed might well be something as innocent as a tobacco pipe or a spoon, or such legitimate pursuits as weaving, spinning or father eating lingonberry porridge out of a bowl in mother's lap. Other riddles were less 'risky'."

The posing of sexual riddles was particularly popular with men. Often it was a way of cultivating the tradition of both the sex and the occupational group, as the following description illustrates:

Nowadays riddling sessions are also held while the men take a break for a cigarette or at other free moments and in the living quarters. The riddles thrown out are seldom the old traditional ones of the Finnish people. Instead the popular ones are those criticised as being vulgar and obscene, such as "What do a woman and a guitar have in common? - Both are fingered at the hole". (SKS. O. Mäkelä AK 12.1966.)

It seems that the performing of sexual lore is often less inhibited among people of the same sex and it strengthens the group's cohesion (Virtanen 1988:215). It is also possible that men and women used riddles for different purposes. Transferring our thoughts from a Finnish milieu to the Spanish village of Monteros, we clearly see that riddles have a distribution that divides the populace by class as well as sex. "Riddles show themselves to be a popular form of spontaneous verbal entertainment among men and women of the working class and women of the elite. There is a definite tendency for working-classs men to tell riddles more than any other single group and for male members of the upper class virtually to refrain from riddling at all. There is a moderate amount of riddling among women of all social ranks, though, as I have said, it is more common among elite women." (Brandes 1980:128)

Sexual riddles are, according to Stanley Brandes (1980:133), the single most common riddle type that has come to be known in Monteros. Both men and women know and tell pretended obscene riddles. The content of the riddle nevertheless determines who tell them: men tend to tell riddles evoking male physical attributes, while women tell those concerning the female anatomy. Both genders may pose riddles suggesting copulation. Examples of riddles posed by men are:

By day hung, by night pressed tight. - The cross-bar of a door. (cf. ER 1744a, FR 843)

I put it in red and I take it out red. - The pepper.

Examples of women's riddles are:

I went down to the market, I bought a young girl, I raised her skirt, And I saw her thing. - A head of lettuce / compared here to a young girl; the outer leaves are the skirt/.

A chap came: He put it in me, He removed it from me; Ask God that He do well by me. - A male nurse giving an injection. (Brandes 1980:133-135.)

The occasion on which women, too, may freely participate in the posing of such riddles is the olive harvest important to the village community. Otherwise women - and Brandes underlines "especially elite women - merely use this folkloristic device as a means of expressing otherwise taboo desires and concepts while safely keeping this slight degree of licentiousness within the secret confines of their homes". The handling of sexual motifs is normally to be avoided between unrelated men and women in Monteros. Pretended obscene riddles give men a chance "to expose their genitals verbally and to evoke images of the sexual act in the presence of women whom they covet but cannot otherwise take." (Brandes 1980:133-136.) Brandes refers to Sigmund Freud's analysis of "smut" (i.e. obscenity) in humour. Freud (1960:97) writes, among other things: "... smut is directed to a particular person, by whom one is sexually excited and who, on hearing it, is expected to become aware of the speaker's excitement and as a result to become sexually excited in turn..." Brandes sees in Freud's analysis an explanation for why men and women cultivate sexual riddles as "a subtle means of displaying their own sexual organs".

The performance of sexual riddles has been regarded as a means of wielding male power. But maybe women have power, too, at least power to tease men. Inger Lövkrona (1991:277) conjectures - though she does not have any descriptions of situations at her disposal -that women in a farming community, where there was strict demarcation between men's and women's jobs, might tease men encroaching on their territory. As a tool they might use sexual riddles with images in which the male organ acquires endearing, humorous and provocative names.

Some folklore collectors mention that women were in the habit of interrupting a game or changed the topic of conversation as soon as anyone began asking sexual riddles.

"---I remember the women would not let some riddle be asked to the end but put a stop to it and interrupted so that it never got asked." (SKS. Aino Hanhisalo AK 2. 1966.)

Women's chastity is also underlined:

"The farm hands and day labourers were bolder at asking more obscene ones, whereas the mothers and serving girls were more respectable." (SKS. Olga Hirvonen AK 3. 1966.)

This information on the use of riddles dates from the extensive collection of Finnish riddles made in 1966 and throws light on the situation in the early decades of the 20th century. But are the details of women's attitudes necessarily as straightforward as this? Where was the limit to the presentation of sexual lore? Let us take a look at this question in the light of Finnish and Swedish folklore.

It comes as something of a surprise on examining the answers to sexual riddles (Finnish Riddles 1977) to find that a considerable proportion of them concentrate on the women's domain of life and work on the farm. 40% of the answers to sexual riddles refer to the woman's domain on the farm, and only 15% to the men's domain. 45% are to do with the agrarian way of life in general and are sexually neutral. The corresponding figures for all Finnish riddles are, by way of comparison, 24%, 23% and 53%, respectively. Sexual riddles thus clearly point to women's work (cf. also Lövkrona 1991), but the same cannot be said of non-erotic ones. Could the reason for this be that women were considered the target for sexual riddles and sexual implications were hidden in the images familiar to them?

The invention of a riddle begins with the answer, for which an image is devised as a means of circumlocution. Does the fact that the answers to sexual riddles clearly tie in with the women's domain mean that the inventors and users of riddles were - contrary to what has been claimed above - for the most part women? Some scholars (Olsson 1944:10 and Wessman 1949:VIII) have stressed the role of women as users of sexual riddles. Their cursory claims do not, however, contain any clear documentation and are limited to collecting situations and not to the use of riddles. On the other hand we may also ask whether the tradition was in fact one of teasing invented and cultivated by men. To my mind we still have too little information to permit a conclusive answer.

But why do the descriptions of situations so often stress that the women objected to sexual riddles? This may be a case of a late change in attitude. V.E.V. Wessman notes in the foreword to his publication of riddles:

"Women are just as daring as men at asking 'improper' riddles. Even young girls may, though sometimes giggling and blushing, pose riddles with a double meaning, or turn their faces away as they hand in a paper bearing a suggestive text." (Wessman 1949:VIII).

This is also the impression created by the puritanical general view of the role of women given in the descriptions submitted for the collection project in 1966.

The sexual folk tradition is not confined to riddles alone and ranges from shanty-like songs sung by men to make their work easier to outspoken or erotic sexual sayings familiar to both genders, anecdotes and fairy tales, and the songs rattled off by young people to accompany dancing. Mixed groups of adults have from time immemorial cultivated open and risqué sexual humour, so why not sexual riddles too, which, being ambiguous, are far more exciting? We do, however, have very few descriptions and facts about what people talked about when they got together and the type of language permissible on a given occasion.

It is worth remembering in assessing the moral attitudes reflected in the descriptions produced in the early decades of this century that this was the period at which public enlightenment of all sorts - elementary schooling, the workers' movement, the youth association movement, the temperance movement, the farmers' associations, the country women's associations and many others -were, at least in the western countries, not only enlightening the people but also cleaning up their language and morals. What is more, the very act of sending material to the biggest folklore archive in the country must have acted as quite a filter. One female collector, who did admittedly also send in some sexual riddles she had noted down, commented on the situation as follows:

"If the local people ever found out that I had written such things to you, they should say I was quite abnormal. They would never believe that you would want to know anything vulgar ---." (SKS. Helmi Mäkelä AK 12. 1966)

There were in many communities clear limits to the use of sexual lore that could not be exceeded. It seems to have been very common for sexual riddles to be banned when there were children present. As one correspondent says:

Although country children knew all about animals' mating and giving birth, it was the rule rather than the exception for them to be completely ignorant about the sex life of men and women and the way babies were born. Modesty presumably obliged people to desist from asking riddles that might lead to any awkward questions when there were children present.

The limits to the use of sexual lore depend very much on the culture and are often influenced by, for example, religion, the position of women in the community, and on whether sex is regarded as a favourable resource or as a threat to beware of by imposing restrictions. Sexual insinuation may in some cultures be a natural part of everyday discourse. Donn V. Hart (1964:139) reports that in the Philippines such talk was not considered vulgar or obscene but as reflecting "an amiable attitude that puts normal sexual behavior on the same level as other pleasant activities such as scratching and yawning". Riddle games can also be directly related to sexual socialisation, as among the Quechua-speakers of Peru. Billie Jean Isbell and Fredy Amilcar Roncalla Fernandez (1977:22-25) insist that they see a direct correlation between the search for one's sexual identity and the creative manipulation of metaphors in riddles, insults, and songs. The young person skilled in the use of these traditional genres is considered more intelligent than the one who is not. Someone who is innovative with riddles, insults, and songs is also believed to be a good sexual partner. Unlike in western pre-industrial communities, the children there are also familiar with sexual metaphors even though they are too young to engage in sexual relations.

The performance of sexual riddles is, however, as a rule confined either to set situations or to groups of the same age or gender. For example, in the British West Indies sexual lore was an integral part of funeral rituals, the aim being to stress at a time of crisis that the living emerges from the dead. All can take part in the wake, so sexual lore is not restricted there to any particular group. (Abrahams 1968:155-156.) But among the Venda of Africa, for example, young people only asked sexual riddles among their friends, and never in the hearing of adults (Blacking 1961).

Erotic teasing

The sexual riddle was, according to the Finnish descriptions, not only a means of charging the atmosphere but sometimes also a test used by the young men of the village to try the tolerance of a new serving girl. The girl had to be on her guard: it was a mistake to become angry, to show blatant astonishment or to take part in the jest:

"Then I went into service in the village of Kytösyrjä in Impilahti --- It was an ancient custom for all the young men of the village to come and take a look at any new serving girl. They introduced themselves, under all sorts of names. One said he was Mr. Emptypants from Helsinki. When I refused to flirt with them, they began asking each other dirty riddles. In some of them the question was innocent but the answer was naughty. With others it was the other way round. Then it was best not to get caught up in their talk. Otherwise they would soon say you had a dirty mind. Their aim was to trip the girl up in her speech. The boldest one always asked the questions, the others answered and laughed. If the girl did not join in, she could not show she was offended. It would only have made things worse. If she joined in, she had to be sure she could hold her own. It was no use trying unless she really knew what she was about. If she pretended she had no idea what they were talking about, she was more likely to be left in peace, they lost interest in teasing her. But if she let them see she was angry, it went on and on. I saw it happen with a day worker from the farm." (SKS. Elsa Jaatinen AK 6. 1966.)

The above account describes the initiation of a new member of the community involving a test of behaviour, teasing and sexual charge. Erotic teasing is still part of the living workplace tradition, and the butt of the joke is often a younger member of the opposite sex. Embarrassment often goes hand in hand with teasing, and only the smart and lucky victim comes out with honour. Teasing is regarded as a form of male tradition and a means of amusing, embarrassing or insulting a woman (Simmons 1956:1). But women are also capable of it. The following quotation, though brief, from an answer given to a Finnish riddle collector is typical:

"---the riddles are from the Rajala shoe factory at Kankaanpää, where a worker called Aili Kivelä put them to the young men working alongside her." (SKS. O. Mäkelä AK 12. 1966)

Sexual riddles have also been a means of testing the norms of the individual and community, of blurring and breaking them. These means are still in use, even though the riddling tradition has been transformed. I was personally once subjected to just such a test when spending the night with my husband at the home of one of our informants while we were on fieldwork. During our numerous previous visits we had got used to the outspoken joking with sexual overtones tinging the conversation. This was particularly marked during the local masking-tradition period, when the donning of a mask gave the wearer greater liberty to speak out and to grope. I nevertheless had to hide my astonishment when, over breakfast, our host, who was about the same age as me, asked with a grin: "How did you sleep?" Noting the look on his face, a warning bell began to ring, but I briskly replied: "Very well thank you." "How did you sleep?" our host repeated, and when I failed to give him the answer he expected, added: "Did you sleep like me, with balls between your legs?" Sometimes such jokes are almost a form of flirting, and it depends on the way they are presented and what the listener is accustomed to whether they are felt to be offensive, even vulgar exchange or a means of charging the situation acceptable to the adult community. Stanley Brandes (1980:135-136) emphasises the use of power attached to sexual joking. Sexual exchange is in his opinion, too, in its mildest form no more than flirting, but "when carried to excess, a form of verbal rape".

The use of riddles today

Many true riddles live only in archives and books. There is, however, always an exception to prove the rule. The following riddle, already included in the Aenigmata Fennica published in 1783, was recently sent in to the Folklore Archive:

Stick, wet, loose, pull, if it doesn't fit then lick the end. -Needle and thread. (FR 770)

The riddler was a 22-year-old woman student at a domestic science college who put the riddle to her fellow-students during one of their breaks. Although sexual riddles are indeed still part of the oral tradition, new riddle formulae are to be found more often than the traditional ones. The following riddle jokes were noted down in 1990 (background information in brackets):

Why did Sarah laugh? - God was trying her. (16-year-old girl; riddle known since the 1940s)

What happened when the seven dwarfs saw Snow White in the shower? - Seven up. (13-year-old boy; riddle very popular; varies)

What do men and matches have in common? - They both catch on just as easily. (16-year-old girl)

What did the leper say on coming out of the brothel? - Now I've lost it!

The formulae of these riddle jokes are familiar from trick questions and there is little new in their contents, either. Representing more recent lore is the copy tradition rapidly spreading from one country to another. Among the numerous jokes is the following:

It was the first time as I recall,
One evening in May, you gave it me,
My mother was hiding and watching it all,
My very first time with her own eyes to see.
It was an experience beyond compare.
You pushed it between my lips, I swear,
I could feel it, feel it, all of it there.
I coughed and I spluttered, I thought I would choke,
So great was the feeling that nobody spoke,
The first time you gave me - my very first smoke.

(19-year-old girl)

These sexual riddles, likewise the visual ones that follow, are from an unpublished collection by Ulla Lipponen.

Items of copylore often have direct counterparts in neighbouring countries, but the origin of this 'poem' is unknown. There is, however, nothing new about the link between smoking and sex (Dundes & Pagter 1975:202, 203). Although this is not a proper riddle, the false expectation effect is exactly the same as in sexual riddles.

Sexual riddles are not told merely for fun or as a means of teasing someone; they are also a conscious means of making a protest and breaking fusty or outdated behavioural norms. America witnessed a fashionable wave of sexual riddles in the late 1960s (Bauman 1970) instigated by a parodic secret society calling itself The Turtles. The society had its own mocking slogan and initiation rites, during which the following four riddles were as a rule posed:

1. What is it a man can do standing, a woman sitting down, and a dog on three legs? - Shake hands.
2. What is it that a cow has four of and a woman only two of? -Legs.
3. What is a four-letter word ending in 'k' that means the same as intercourse? - Talk.
4. What is it on a man that is round, hard, and sticks so far out of his pyjamas that you can hang his hat on it? - His head.

The most important thing was not for the respondent to find the right 'innocent' answer but to amuse the initiated by giving a sexual answer that was laughingly proven to be wrong. The aim of the lore was, among other things, to promote conviviality among drinkers in restaurants and pubs and to good-humouredly embarrass friends. It was common for men to ask women the riddles. By means of sexual riddles it was easy to break the conversational ice, and the erotic charge was very clear. Richard Bauman, in his studies of riddle joking, considered that fundamentally this institution also parodised the initiation rites of various fraternal orders in America (Masons, fraternities, etc.), for their serious rites were likened to the mock rites of The Turtles. (Bauman 1970: 21-25.).

The erotic riddle can even today still be an apt way of handling the taboos surrounding sexuality. In spring 1989 a 27-year-old Israeli student of folkloristics in Jerusalem (R.D.) wrote down the riddles put to her by a man living in the same mixed student hostel. There were 26 in all, and they were all sexual in theme. The material was provided by Galit Hasan-Rokem, Senior Lecturer at the University of Jerusalem. Why riddle jokes rather than, say, political jokes, R.D. wondered. She began to question her student friends and noticed that the sexual riddle can break the ice in situations where something is needed to get the atmosphere warmed up. But it is also a neutral way of speaking of something that is still considered delicate. One informant claimed that sexual riddles are also a means of expressing hidden feelings. A jest such as this amuses the listeners more than any other. These riddles were not, however, only men's tradition, for R.D. herself asked her friends the same riddles in order to decide how easy or difficult they were to guess. The material shows that a bite at the forbidden fruit is clearly provocative and a mere suggestion often carries a greater erotic charge than an outspoken statement. There was, however, a limit to sexual jokes in the student community, too, since they were never asked when there were strangers present. A sexual riddle may well incorporate some other joking point. The Israeli riddles were often spiced with ethnic humour:

What does a Georgian have that is long and hard? - His name and the first class at school.

Why does a Polish woman close her eyes during the sexual act? -Because she can't bear to see someone else enjoying something.

Why do Israeli men come quickly? - Because they've got to run and tell the lads.

What do you call an English woman's nipple? - The tip of the iceberg.

These riddles are only fully revealed to the listener familiar with the stereotypes: the stupid Georgian with a long name, the sadistic Pole, the childish boasting of Israeli men and the frigidity of English women. Ethnic stereotypes are not, however, always international, so there is a limit even to joking. Many of the riddles popular among students were also culture-specific in that they tied in with contemporary Israeli politics, culture and everyday life.

Children and young people also test the limits of norms and one another or older people by means of sexual riddles. The border between the forbidden and the permissible is elastic and clearly shifts over the years. The following description, published in 1955, illustrates the boldness and desire to tease of a Philippine boy: "The riddle contest may proceed smoothly...until some naughty boy would pop up with a riddle having a double meaning such as the following Tagalog: "The spear-thrust has not yet been aimed, but the wound gapes widely open." Of course, this would at once arouse a cry of objection.../and/ some bold girls would make a comeback... The arm of your father is surrounded with boils." (This is the answer.) (Manuel 1955:152.)

In the early 1970s a group of junior schoolchildren wrote down the riddles they could remember for me during one school lesson. Among them were the following sexual riddles:

Why are fire engines red? - You would be too, if you had your hose pulled.

What is the ultimate miracle? - A drunk knocks up a telephone pole and the operator has twins.

In an anthology of children's lore appearing in 1987 the fire engine riddle appears in the following variation:

Teacher: Why does a cow have a long face?
Little Johnny: Well you would too if you had your tits pulled twice a day!

Among the other sexual riddles in the anthology are ones using the popular "what's the difference" and "what" formulae.

What's the difference between a man and a woman?
- Nothing really. They look the same from behind and slot together at the front.
(Lipponen 1987)

When the presenters of the riddles are children aged 8-10, the shift in sexual lore from a means of raising the erotic temperature to the level of childlike, daring entertainment is clear. These riddles are children's way of showing off to their friends just how much they know about the subject in question.

Far more daring are the sexual riddles contained in the anthology edited by Carsten Bregenhøj (1988), where the point of the joke may be aimed at, for example, homosexuals.

Do you know why gays don't like space? - Because it's endless.

Whereas at one time it was the children's ears that had to be protected from sexual insinuations, those in need of protection today are more likely to be their parents', who are amazed at the vulgar language used by their children and the attitudes it reflects. The most astonishing thing as far as the adult is concerned is that the same riddle may amuse the child in early adolescence just testing his limits and the adult himself. In addition to providing entertainment the riddle is for the child often a way of transgressing the norms, of testing adults' tolerance and weighing up the various manifestations of sexuality. Although some sexual lore is shared by different age groups, adults usually conceal their knowledge in the presence of youngsters, or at least the fact that they are amused by sexual humour. The double standard of morality is ready and waiting.

One explanation for risqué sexual lore in the present day is perhaps the general laxity in the way people speak. Sex is also fed to us, by the media for example, in a way that was once unheard of. We may on the other hand wonder how people living in the cramped living conditions in rural society, with large families all sleeping in the same room and even in the same bed, could possibly be ignorant of the facts of life. Sex has in any case ceased to be taboo. Limits do, however, still exist, for verbal exchange with sexual overtones is cultivated chiefly as the lore of peer groups.

Sexual picture puzzles and spoonerisms

From time to time there is a fashionable wave of picture puzzles (Preston 1982 and Roemer 1982). As with riddle jokes, only the person who sets the puzzle as a rule knows the answer, which always gives an amusing twist to a simple visual expression. Only a small proportion of picture puzzles are mildly sexual, such as this one - one of the oldest - which its presenter learnt while living in a student hostel in 1959.

Picture (1)

The picture proceeds in stages, and each stage is followed by the question "What's this?". No. 5 shows a mushroom, no. 6 big sister in the bath. In children's lore this final picture has been modified as

Picture (2)

the answer to which is "Sister pulling her tights on" (Lipponen 1987, 72). Danielle M. Roemer (1982:194) presents a version of this picture in which the explanation is "A fat lady seen from behind pulling up her girdle".

The following pictures are taken from Finnish children's lore and depict Marilyn Monroe behind a tree.

Picture (3)

In American lore the curvaceous woman is sometimes Dolly Parton (Roemer 1982:193). Adults also amuse themselves by drawing picture puzzles. Again some lore is shared by children and adults alike, but the following series appeals more to adults who know at least something about the plays of William Shakespeare. It is called "Shakespeare's Plays" and it was drawn for me in 1987 by a woman of about 40 Ulla Lipponen met on a bus.

Pictures (4)

The Merry Wives of Windsor
Much Ado About Nothing
Midsummer Night's Dream

The picture here says more than a thousand words. What makes them into a riddle is precisely the fact that the image conjures up two answers. The giver of the 'right' interpretation is chastised on hearing the answer. The pictures are presented as a series, so that the clash between 'naughty' pictures and world classics affords cumulative pleasure.

Also popular these days is a form of word play close to riddling known as the spoonerism. Alan Dundes and Robert B. Georges give some examples of this type of verbal jesting in an article entitled "Some Minor Genres of Obscene Folklore" (1962:222):

What is the difference between a nun and a girl in a bathtub? - The nun has hope in her soul.

What's the difference between a chorus girl during the day and a chorus girl at night? - A chorus girl during the day is fair and buxom.

The question part of the riddle always begins with the opening formula "What's the difference between". The answer is just as innocent, until the initial sounds have been reversed. A spoonerism is a transposition usually of the initial sounds of two or more words. The point lies in the answer, and the listener must know what to do in order to share in the joke.

Waln K. Brown distinguishes the two processes that have to be executed in order to discern the ultimate answer. He gives as examples the riddles

What's the difference between a well stacked broad in the day and the same chick in the nighttime? - In the daytime she's fair and buxom.

What's the difference between a skinny broad and a counterfeit dollar bill? - A counterfeit dollar bill is a phony buck.

"First, certain letters must be transferred from word to word, thus: fair and buxom, phony buck. Second, the whole answer must be put into place: "In the daytime she's fair and buxom; in the nighttime she's bair and fuxom" and "A counterfeit dollar bill is a phony buck; a skinny broad is a bony phuck." (Brown 1973:96.). On hearing the question the riddlee cannot know it is a play on words and is thus at the mercy of the riddler. But on grasping the answer to the first riddle, the experienced riddlee will have grasped the cognitive model and will know how to solve the next spoonerism.

The potential for playing with spoonerisms depends on the structure of the language, which has not so far been investigated. The Finnish language, for example, seems to lend itself almost endlessly to pairs of innocent words which, when reversed, produce a crude result dealing with sex or faeces. There are even some stories in Finnish children's lore containing pairs of words resulting in a daring sexual expression. Adults also amuse themselves with spoonerisms, but at textural level, which is untranslatable.

Spoonerisms draw on the same sexual images as real riddles, since the result of twisting the words is always left to the listener to guess. If he laughs, he has got the joke.


The material I have presented here covers a time span of almost a hundred years. Obviously both the sexual imagery and the use of riddles have during this time changed many times over. The examples take us from town to country and from an agrarian milieu to urban lore, and the users of the riddles have been heterogeneous in the extreme. Sex, which was, judging from the descriptions, once both secret and forbidden, is now open to all in numerous different manifestations. It would never occur to anyone to accuse another of an overactive or dirty mind for guessing a sexual riddle 'correctly'. Unless of course such accusations were a vital part of the game. But we so far know virtually nothing at all about the use of sexual lore among, for example, different social classes.

On the subject of love, or the emotions in general, riddles remain silent. This is a genre that, as regards the scale of emotions, gives frank expression to pure sensuality and sexuality. Sexual enlightenment and the oversupply of sex have not robbed the subject of its charm. A masterly double- entendre still has the power to amuse even if it is vulgar, but at the same time it reflects the attitudes of the community and the figures of speech assimilated by people in different communities. The 'coarseness' of the metaphors depends on, for example, the time and the situational context. Something that may today appear obscene may not have been in its time. It nervetheless appears to be clear that the people made to look stupid were the women who tried to prevent sexual riddles from being asked. The concept of obscenity and suitablity may also vary from one group to another. Sexual jokes are perhaps also a means of weighing up different sexual charges and tones.

Sexual riddles both ancient and modern constitute easily recognisable semantic chains testing the listener by playing with words, while examination of sexual referents from different angles is a constant source of new variations. One thing all sexual riddles have in common, however: the right answer is always in a sense the wrong one.


Abrahams, Roger D. 1968: Introductory Remarks to a Rhetorical Theory of Folklore. Journal of American Folklore 81: 143-158.

Bauman, Richard 1970: The Turtles: An American Riddling Institution. Western Folklore 29: 21-25.

Blacking, John 1961: The Social Values of Venda Riddles. African Studies, Vol. 20, No. 1: 1-32.

Boggs, Ralph Steele 1934: North Carolina White Folktales and Riddles. Journal of American Folklore 47: 289-328.

Brandes, Stanley 1980: Pranks and Riddles. S.Brandes (ed.) Metaphors of Masculinity. Sew and Stratus in Andalusian Folklore. Philadelphia.

Bregenhøj, Carsten 1988: Blodet droppar, blodet droppar. Skolbarns humor. Helsingfors.

Brown, Waln K. 1973: Cognitive Ambiguity and the Pretended Obscene Riddle. Keystone Folklore 18: 89-101.

Dundes, Alan & Georges, Robert A. 1962: Some Minor Genres of Obscene Folklore. Journal of American Folklore 75: 221-226.

Dundes, Alan & Pagter, Carl P. 1975: Work Hard and You Shall Be Rewarded. Urban Folklore from the Paperwork Empire. Austin, Texas.

FR: Finnish Riddles. see Virtanen & al. 1978.

Freud, Sigmund 1960: Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. New York.

Ganander, Christfrid 1783: Aenigmata Fennica. Suomalaiset arvotuxet Wastausten kansa. Helsinki.

Harleman Stewart, Ann 1983: Double Entendre in the Old English Riddles. Lore and Language 3: 39-52.

Hart, Don V. 1964: Riddles in Filipino Folklore. Syracuse.

Isbell, Billie Jean and Fernandez, Fredy Amilcar Roncalla 1977: The Ontogenesis of Metaphor: Riddle Games among Quechua Speakers Seen as Cognitive Discovery Procedures. Journal of Latin American Lore 3: 19-49.

Launonen, Hannu 1966: Varas menee aittaan. Suomalainen Suomi 6: 374-379.

Lipponen, Ulla 1987: Kilon poliisi ja muita koululaisjuttuja. Helsinki.

Lövkrona, Inger 1991: "Dä river å ravlar unner kvinnornas navlar..." Gåtor och erotik i bondesamhället. J.Frykman - O.Löfgren (eds.) Svenska vanor och ovanor. Stockholm.

Manuel, Arsenio E. 1955: Notes on Philippine Folk Literature. University of Manila Journal of East Asiatic Studies 4: 137-153.

Peuckert, Will-Erich 1938: Deutsches Volkstum in Märchen und Sage, Schwank und Rätsel. Berlin.

Preston, Micharl J. 1982: The English Literal Rebus and the Graphic Riddle Tradition. Western Folklore 40: 104-121.

Roemer, Danielle M. 1982: In the Eye of the Beholder. A Semiotic Analysis of the Visual Descriptive Riddle. Journal of American Folklore 95: 173-199.

Schultz, Wolfgang 1912: Rätsel aus dem hellenischen Kulturkreise. II. Leipzig.

Simmons, Donald C. 1965: Erotic Tone Riddles. Man 56.

SKS: Finnish Literature Society.

Taylor, Archer 1951: English Riddles from Oral Tradition. Berkeley.

Wessman, V.E.V. 1940: Finlands svenska folkdiktning 4. Gåtor. Helsingfors.

Virtanen, Leea, Kaivola-Bregenhøj, Annikki & Nyman, Aarre 1977 (eds.): Arvoitukset, Finnish Riddles. Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seuran Toimituksia 330. Helsinki.

Virtanen, Leea 1988: Suomalainen kansanperinne. Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seuran Toimituksia 471. Helsinki.

Virtanen, Leea 1990: Huoraksi nimittely suomalaisessa perinteessä. A.Nenola & S.Timonen (eds.) Louhen sanat. Kirjoituksia kansanperinteen naisista. Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seuran Toimituksia 520. Helsinki.

Annikki Kaivola-Bregenhøj, FT, dos.
Turun yliopisto