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The Great Fire of London - "A riddling tale" by the Oxford Etymologist for the OUPblog

A riddling tale

This is not a mystery tale, but a few twists in the history of the word riddle are worthy of note. Riddles, it should be noted, played and play an outstanding role in world culture. To win a bride, suitors had to offer or solve an insoluble riddle, as happened, for example, to Samson and Turandot. Forever memorable is the riddle of the Sphinx. According to an Old Norse myth, when the shining god Baldr was killed, Odin (that is, Óðinn) whispered something to his dead son on the funeral pyre. For a long time, the best Scandinavian antiquarians have been trying to guess what Odin imparted to his son, a task as profitable as chasing a rainbow or nailing a pudding to a tree (in an earlier post, I referred to a sleeveless errand). Baldr is dead, to begin with, and if Odin wanted the secret message to be known, he would have pronounced it aloud. In principle, all riddles defy solution: they are meant to be insoluble. Collections of riddles from many cultures make such an unexpected conclusion clear. The scholarly literature on this genre of popular culture is a shoreless sea. Especially instructive is the excellent recent book byProfessor Savely Senderovich Riddle of the Riddle.

Princess Turandot wanted to marry a smart man (and did).
(By Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera in New York City, via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

English has two homonyms: riddle “puzzle” and riddle “sieve” (the latter, I think, mainly northern English). Their origin has been known for centuries and can be found in any middle-sized dictionary, so that I won’t be able to say anything new about them. However, I have a tiny postscript, and it is for its sake I am telling this story. But first, here is a short and trivial note on the origin of riddle1 and riddle2.

The root of riddle “puzzle,” from rǣdels(e), is Old English rǣdan “to read.” Reading, it will be noted, is unlike swallowing or breathing: it is a skill, not an instinct. Literacy came to the Western “barbarians,” including the Anglo-Saxons, from Latin (with the conversion to Christianity), and they had to invent a word for the new occupation. Along that road, each tribe went its own way. Verbs meaning “think, guess; collect; count; carve, scratch,” and so forth were pressed into service. The closest cognates of English read are German raten “to advise,” Dutch raden “to advise; guess,” and Old Icelandic ráða (ð has the value of th in English this) “to rule, advise; explain.” Modern English still has the phrase to read a dream and another, semi-tautological, one, especially instructive in this context, “to read a riddle” (read “interpret”), though today the tautology is lost on us.

The most famous riddle in the world.
(“Oedipus and the Sphinx of Thebes, Red Figure Kylix,” c. 470 BC, Vatican Museums, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0)

German Rätsel “riddle”is still an obvious cognate of raten, and the same holds for Dutch raadsel, related to raden. Such, however, is not the case of English riddle ~ read. Two sound changes severed the ties between the verb and the noun, and nothing connects those two words in the language intuition of today’s English speakers. Since the vowel in read is long, we might expect riddle to rhyme with beadle, but in the noun, that long root vowel was long ago shortened before the suffix. It might remain long, as happened in ladle (related to lade “to load”), bridle (related to braid), and many other similar words, but quantitative phonetic changes are rarely consistent.

Some words succumb to them, while the others manage to stay intact, and it is hard to account for their power of resistance. For example, English silly (with its short vowel) is related to German selig “happy” (with its long vowel preserved), while breeches is spelled with ee but rhymes with riches, rather than reaches. Likewise, sieve looks like a perfect rhyme for receive and deceive, but in fact, its poetic partners are live and give. To make matters even worse, the final consonant s in the old form of riddle was taken for the ending of the plural and dropped. The history of –s in English is a fitting plot for a short story. For example, alms, eaves, and riches were once singulars. Speakers misinterpreted –s in them but let it live, while in riddle, s was dropped, to reemerge only in the form of the plural.

Words shed sounds, as lizards drop their tails.
(By Martin LaBar, via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

Riddle “sieve” traces to Old English hriddel, related to the synonymous form hrīder and the verb hrīdrian “to sift” (sifts of course exist for sifting). The suffix –el in this riddle is the same as in riddle1, ladle, and the rest. Centuries ago, many English words began with hr-, hl-, hn-, and hw-. This initial h has been lost, except in the pronunciation of those who still distinguish between witch and which (in today’s erratic spelling, the old group hw– is reflected as wh-: consider which, when, who, and so forth). Thus, riddle1 and riddle2 became homonyms because of a series of phonetic changes, a most usual scenario. As a result, a modern proposal can be riddled with riddles to the despair of evaluators and the joy of punsters.

And now the promised desert should be served. There is another English word for “sieve,” namely, temes, going back to tamis “worsted cloth, originally used for straining sauces,” familiar from Indian cooking. Tamis “sieve, colander” is a living Modern French word. It has been known for centuries, but its origin remains disputed, and unambiguous facts do not support the suggestion that the Romance noun is an adaptation of the Germanic one. We will leave its etymology in limbo and only note that temes sounds like Thames. This fact gave rise to the hypothesis that in the popular saying to set the Thames on fire (usually about someone or some event that cannot set the Thames on fire) refers to that unfortunate sieve, rather than the river name.

A sieve without a riddle.
(Via Pxfuel, public domain)

Perhaps this wild guess would have been dead on arrival if it had not been supported, with a most dubious reference to material culture, by E. Cobham Brewer, the author of the once immensely popular Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. The book was on “everybody’s” desk. For years, people kept discussing whether in the process of sifting, some sieves or strainers may catch fire. Citations in my database go all the way from 1865 to 1921(!). Finally, sieves left the drama unscathed, and the Thames was allowed to remain inflammable. Analogs of phrases about rivers set on fire exist in several languages. The origin of the English idiom has not been found, and the OED has no citations of it before 1720. Such a late date makes one suspect that we are dealing with an adaptation of a similar idiom in a language other than English. Be that as it may, the entire argument looks like a parody of etymological research: some people who have more time on their hands than they need launch a ludicrous hypothesis, and the rest of the world keeps the ball rolling until the last thread disappears in the sand.

Featured image: “The Great Fire of London” by Josepha Jane Battlehooke, Museum of London, via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

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