In a sense, every riddle is a language riddle, and indeed many of the riddles we’ve looked at already may not translate well to other languages simply because the word tricks no longer work. The final few riddles we’ll consider in this book are explicitly language-based riddles—so there’s a priming clue for you already! As you read through them, try to recall how you have solved similar puzzles in the past. Remember, most importantly, that almost all riddles are not quite what they seem, and are usually solved in a wholly unexpected way. How do we get good at expecting the unexpected? That’s a riddle in itself!
The Egg Riddle
Let’s dive right in: “How can you drop a whole, raw egg onto a concrete floor without cracking it?”
Looks simple, huh? But luckily, you’ve developed an arsenal of cognitive problem-solving tricks at your disposal. You already know that it’s no use to sit and think of all the hundreds of ways you could protect a fragile egg from smashing as it hits a hard floor (in fact, some of you may have even had to figure this out at school as part of science class!). For our purposes, imagine that the riddle explicitly states, “Without any padding, protection, nifty rubberized cage add-ons, or a complicated set of pulleys attached to four mini drones.”
No, the solution doesn’t lie there. You’ve already been given a clue that this is a language-based problem, so it probably pays to read the whole riddle again, being careful to really look at the words and how they are used. You can already guess that in all normal circumstances, an egg will crack on a hard concrete floor. Read the question again.
As it happens, this riddle is really a get-it-or-don’t scenario—in other words, no amount of analytical rumination will help you see it. You either do or don’t. However, it’s about here in our book that we can appreciate a completely different kind of thinking. Have you ever seen a puzzle that is essentially a scrambled word like “pocateldimc” and been asked to unscramble the hidden word?
If you were to try to solve this methodically and analytically, you could start with each letter and try on every other letter as the second letter, taking the time to test out each combination possible one by one. On the other hand, you could simply look at the scrambled word without doing much of anything—just let your brain figure it out, without trying to drive the process in any way. You may be surprised to find after some looking that the word immediately springs out at you all at once.
The important thing is that your brain is working hard almost all the time, not just when you’re actively engaging in some deliberate analysis, but always. For some problems, you may only need to step away and come back, to “sleep on it,” or to simply ponder it without any particular direction. Let your brain do its thing.
Ready for the answer yet?
Q: How can you drop a whole, raw egg onto a concrete floor without cracking it?”
A: Concrete floors don’t usually break that easily!
Ah, it was just a trick of grammar. Our preconceived models led us astray, again, although to be fair, you can be forgiven for not getting this one—it deliberately sets out to trick you. (PS, the scrambled word was “complicated”—isn’t it funny how our brains make some things seem more complicated than they are?)
A Language Riddle
The next in our list goes like this: “What comes once in a minute, twice in a moment, but never in a thousand years?”
It might be useful to literally list out all the things you know about the kind of riddle you’re seeing, the tools you have at your disposal to solve it, and the potential expectations that may trip you up. Slow your thought process down and really look at it. Your thought process may be something like, “Well, how could it be that a thing could happen literally every minute but not in a thousand years? That doesn’t make sense. So, I guess this means that its ‘coming’ is not in the ordinary way I would imagine it. I also know that this chapter is about language riddles, so I’m going to go down that path and set aside an attempt to wonder what events happen on this weird schedule . . .”
As with the previous riddle and others in its category, once you see it, you see it. As a clue, try to remember what we learned earlier about being aware that words and the things words refer to are not the same thing.
If you’re ready for the answer, it’s this: the letter “m.”
It “comes” (i.e. occurs) just once in the word minute, twice in the word moment, but not at all in the words a thousand years. There are a few riddles on this theme. For example, what word is always spelled incorrectly in the dictionary? Using the same trick we just uncovered for this riddle, you should be able to see it immediately—“incorrectly” is always spelled incorrectly!
A Wet Coat
Another cute word riddle is this one: “What kind of coat is always wet when you put it on?”
You can instantly see the kind of puzzle this is, having encountered similar ones before. Using your creative and lateral thinking, you start to think of the way the riddle is posed, your assumptions, the different possible meanings of every word in the puzzle.
Here are some clues to help you solve this (admittedly tricky) riddle:
How many kinds of “coats” can you think of? Try to list as many definitions as you can.
Of those definitions, which is wet when you put it on? The obvious one is that a coat—like a wool jacket, a blazer, or a raincoat—but none of these is always wet when you put it on . . .
The final clue is to consider all the different ways for someone to “put something on.” If you’re imagining an ordinary coat that you wear over your clothes, you might not be able to imagine any kind of coat that goes on wet. But what about the other definition for coat? Can any of those “go on wet?”
This is a clever puzzle that strengthens our ability to scan our neural networks and seek the hidden relationships that explain the connection between a series of ideas, symbols, or words. English is a language filled with homographs—words that are spelled the same but have different meanings. Add to this what we’ve learned about context, we can see that the key to the riddle is to find a scenario or circumstance where several different ambiguous terms are resolved. We need to find a way for one of the meanings for “coat” to fit with one of the meanings for “wet” and one of the meanings for “put on.” We’ll know we’ve found the right answer when the riddle doesn’t seem mysterious anymore, but makes perfect sense!
The answer to this one is this: a coat of paint.
It is not a normal coat but a coat as in a layer, and it is not wet in the normal sense we imagine, and it is also not put on in the sense we imagine either. But you can clearly see that if the riddle had been posed to you with a little image of a jacket underneath it, this priming would have been enough to confuse you, whereas showing a little picture of a paintbrush would have alerted you to a way out of the puzzle. As always, context matters!