A chiastic riddle

From Benita Bendon Campbell, a riddle and its answer:

I wondered about the source of the image and of the riddle. (Bonnie found this version on the Writer’s Circle Facebook group, with no indication of its earlier history.) The riddle has appeared with quite a collection of artwork (on ecards, in particular), none of it attributed, and some posters characterize it as “an old riddle”, but that just might mean that they recall it from when they were younger; we could be looking at the Antiquity Illusion here.

Riddles come in many types, but all have a linguistic component. Some pose a baffling question whose answer turns on an ambiguity:

(1) Q: What tastes better than it smells? A: A tongue.

(2) Q: What has a foot but no legs? A: A snail.

The ambiguity in (1) is straightforward: intransitive taste (suggested by the form of the question, with tastes paired with smells) versus transitive taste, in the answer.

The ambiguity in (2) is subtler. But consider the relevant part of the foot entry in NOAD2:

the lower extremity of the leg below the ankle, on which a person stands or walks.

– a corresponding part of the leg in vertebrate animals.

– Zoology a locomotory or adhesive organ of an invertebrate. [AZ: a metaphorical extension]

Another riddle type asks “What’s the difference between an X and a Y?” And the answer is chiastic, with A … B paired with B … A. A non-riddle example, from “The Further Adventures of Nick Danger, Third Eye” (#10 here):

CATHERWOOD: You may wait here in the sitting room or you can sit here in the waiting room.

And now a riddle example:

Q: What’s the difference between a school boy studying and a farmer watching his cattle? A: One is stocking his mind, while the other is minding his stock.

Back to “What’s the difference between a cat and a comma?” The chiastic answer is complex, with

claws /klɔz/ … paws /pɔz/   paired with  pause /pɔz/ … clause /klɔz/

(note: commas do not in fact mark the ends of clauses, but that claim is needed to make the riddle work).

Bonuses. First, “difference” word play can turn on simple homophony, without chiasmus, as in the ecard examples in “Snarky spelling and punctuation” of 10/14/13:

the difference between knowing your shit and knowing you’re shit; the difference between feeling your nuts and feeling you’re nuts

Then there are nonsense riddles, meta-jokes on the riddle form itself: there is no answer to the question. The most famous of these is surely Lewis Carroll’s

Why is a raven like a writing desk?

in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Carroll intended this to have no answer, but of course people have devised any number of clever, though somewhat tortured, answers: for example: they both come with inky quills.

One Response to “A chiastic riddle”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    My friend the archivist Michael Palmer got onto the artwork and also the riddle:

    Most internet instances that give a source, refer to an original print by Hazel Varanese, of Columbus, Ohio [on Etsy]:

    The riddle is traceable back to at least August 2006:

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