English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

I’m a riddle: Am I ridiculous?

Q: Many riddles are ridiculous. Could “riddle” and “ridiculous” be related?

A: No, “riddle” comes from rædels, Old English for the word game, while “ridiculous” is ultimately derived from ridere, classical Latin for to laugh.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “riddle” in this sense as “a question or statement intentionally phrased to require ingenuity in ascertaining its answer or meaning, frequently used as a game or pastime.”

The first OED example is from an Old English translation of the Hexateuch, the first six books of the Hebrew Bible (the Torah plus Joshua). Here’s an expanded version of the citation from Numbers 12:8:

“Ic sprece to him mude to mude 7 openlice næs ðurh rædelsas” (“I speak to him face to face and clearly not through riddles”).

The OED says rædels comes from the Germanic base of rædan, Old English for to read, which originally meant to consider, guess, discover, and foretell as well as to scan writing silently or aloud.

In case you’re wondering, the “s” of the singular rædels was dropped in Middle English on the mistaken impression that it was a plural ending.

As for “ridiculous,” the OED says it entered English through one of two adjectives derived from ridere: the classical Latin ridiculus or the post-classical Latin ridiculosus. Both meant laughable.

The earliest OED citation for “ridiculous,” which we’ve expanded, is from a 16th-century treatise on education. This passage discusses whether the image of God can be in every man if some men are not very godlike:

“If that whiche is in euery mannes bodye were the ymage of godde, Certes thanne [certainly then] the ymage of godde were not onely diuers [diverse], but also horrible, monstruouse, and in some part ridiculouse: that is to say, to be laughed at” (Of the Knowledge Whiche Maketh a Wise Man, 1533, by Sir Thomas Elyot).

Finally, here’s a more recent, expanded example from “Eminent Domain,” a short story by Antonya Nelson, in the Jan. 26, 2004, issue of The New Yorker:

“This same newspaper had announced the arrival of Mary Annie’s first grandchild early the summer before, a little girl, named something fanciful and trendily ridiculous, something that her parents, particularly her mother, Meredith, former dope dealer and hell-raiser, hoped and prayed would suit her as she emerged into the world.”

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