Adventures in Etymology – Riddles

Today we’re uncovering the mysterious and puzzling origins of the word riddle.


A riddle [ˈɹɪdəl] is:

  • A verbal puzzle, mystery, or other problem of an intellectual nature.

To riddle is:

  • To speak ambiguously or enigmatically.
  • To solve, answer, or explicate a riddle or question.

It comes from the Middle English rēdels (riddle, problem, enigma), from the Old English rǣdels [ˈræː.deɫs] (guess, conjecture, counsel, debate, enigma, riddle), from the Proto-West-Germanic *rādislī (advice, guess, riddle, puzzle), from *rādan (to advise, guess, interpret), from the Proto-Germanic *rēdaną [ˈrɛː.ðɑ.nɑ̃] (to decide, advise), from the PIE *Hreh₁dʰ- (to think, arrange) [source].

The English word read comes from the Germanic root, as do the Dutch words raadsel (riddle, mystery) and raden (to guess), the German words Rätsel (riddle, puzzle, mystery) and raten (to advise, recommend, guess), and the Swedish word råda (to advise, rule, reign, occur, exist) [source].

The word riddle, as in a kind of sieve, usually made of wire, comes from different roots: from the Middle English ridel (coarse sieve), from the Old English hriddel (sieve), from the Proto-West Germanic *hrīdrā (sieve), from the Proto-Germanic *hrīdrǭ [ˈxriːð.rɔ̃ː] (sieve), from *hrid- (to shake), ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European *krey- (to sift, separate, divide) [source].

Words from the same roots include crime, crisis, critic and secret in English, Reiter [ˈʁaɪ̯tɐ] (rider, mounted man-at-arms) in German, and crynu (to tremble, quake, shiver) and crwydr (sieve, winnowing-fan, wandering, roaming) in Welsh [source].

More details about sieve-related words in Celtic languages on the Celtiadur.

Here’s a video I made of this information:

Video made with Doodly [afflilate link].

I also write about words, etymology and other language-related topics on the Omniglot Blog, and I explore etymological connections between Celtic languages on the Celtiadur.

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