As I was going to St Ives,
I met a man with seven wives.
Each wife had seven sacks,
Each sack had seven cats,
Each cat had seven kits.
Kits, cats, sacks, wives;
How many were going to St Ives?

This is a classic and well-known children's puzzle. This Sesame Street version (1970) (spoiler warning) also includes an excellent rejoinder. But where did the riddle originate?

I know of some related puzzles, for example:

You're driving a bus.
At the first stop, 6 people get on.
At the second stop, 4 people get off.
At the third stop, 9 people get on.
At the fourth stop, 7 people get on and 4 people get off.
What colour are the bus-driver's eyes?

Is there a general term for this type of puzzle (appears to be an arithmetic problem, inviting the listener to engage in more-or-less-tedious calculation, but is actually a trick question)?

What are some more examples?

What's the earliest known puzzle of this type, and where did it originate?

Presumably these exist in languages other than English, what are some examples? (with translations please)

See also: "As I gaed to Stonehaven".

(Also, what are the answers to the puzzles above?).

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ I'm almost tempted to close as "unclear what you're asking". There are so many questions in here! 1) Where did the St. Ives puzzle originate? 2) Is there a general term for this type of puzzle? 3) What are some more examples? (open-ended list quesion) 4) What's the earliest such puzzle? 5) Where did it originate? 6) What are some foreign-language examples? (another open-ended list question) 7) What are the answers to the puzzles above? I hate to be a killjoy, but this does seem a bad question to me. $\endgroup$ Apr 4 '15 at 20:24
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    $\begingroup$ Another point: the puzzles you're talking about are not riddles. Check the riddle tag wiki. The bus-driver one is an edge case (it's kind of a "what am I?"-type question, but I'd probably retag if I found it tagged as a riddle), but the St Ives one is definitely not a riddle. Both are lateral-thinking questions, and as leoll2 says, they'd probably be closed as "too broad" if posted here. $\endgroup$ Apr 4 '15 at 20:28
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    $\begingroup$ Consider removing "What are some more examples?" and "Presumably these exist in languages other than English, what are some examples?" As these are not appropriate questions for this site. Otherwise you risk having it closed as "too broad There are ... too many possible answers..." $\endgroup$
    – Adam Davis
    Jul 31 '15 at 15:05
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    $\begingroup$ The St. Ives riddle is too unclear for the author to feel smug about tricking people. It was never once said where the man with seven wives was going. Two people can go in the same direction and still meet. $\endgroup$
    – Hugo Zink
    Oct 16 '15 at 9:52
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    $\begingroup$ @HugoZink I totally agree, that's why the Sesame St version is such fun. :) $\endgroup$
    – A E
    Oct 16 '15 at 18:02

According to Wikipedia, "The earliest known published version of [the riddle of St. Ives.] comes from a manuscript dated to around 1730 (but it differs in referring to "nine" rather than "seven" wives). The modern form was first printed around 1825."

People who walked by the sphinx in the town of Thebes were said to have been asked to solve this riddle of the Sphinx:

"What animal walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three in the evening?"

Oedipus is reputed to have solved this.

The closest expression for this general sort of problem may be "brain teaser".

Just for fun, you may wish to explain this:

"There are 10 kinds of mathematicians in the world: those who understand binary and those who do not."

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ $BIN(10)=DEC(2)$. There are 2 kinds of mathematicians in the world. Lol! $\endgroup$ May 27 '15 at 14:54
  • $\begingroup$ @ghosts_in_the_code And: DEC(31) = OCT(31) [Christmas & Halloween). $\endgroup$ Sep 7 '15 at 9:39
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    $\begingroup$ @Rusell I think you meant DEC(25). $\endgroup$ Sep 7 '15 at 14:24

You could play off the idiom "walking down the garden path" and call these garden path riddles. As with a garden path sentence, one is led to believe that the riddle is intended to be parsed one way and it isn't until the end is reached or the answer revealed that the listener recognizes the obfuscation.

You have a 12" LP of Chopin Nocturnes, four on each side. The record plays at 33 1/3 rpm and the grooves are 25 micrometers (0.025 mm) wide. Side A plays for 20:32 minutes and Side B plays for 20:45 minutes. How many grooves are there?

  • $\begingroup$ Nice idea! ......... $\endgroup$
    – A E
    May 27 '15 at 15:53
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, I've heard this expression used to describe this type of riddle before. $\endgroup$ Mar 23 '16 at 18:44

If I am to take your riddles literally:

Answer 1: Only one for sure, I'm the only one going to St. Ives. We don't know where we met the man or where he and his wives, cats, etc. are headed.

Answer 2: The bus-driver is me, and has whatever color eyes I have. This simply because of the statements You are driving a bus and What colour are the bus-driver's eyes?

I don't know any specific name for such riddles, they are generally just referred to as 'trick questions' since they seem to involve logic, but are more of a play on words.

  • 5
    $\begingroup$ This is asking for information on the riddles, not the answers. $\endgroup$
    – Scimonster
    Apr 4 '15 at 20:38
  • $\begingroup$ @Scimonster It's also asking for the answers (in the last line). $\endgroup$ Apr 4 '15 at 20:55
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    $\begingroup$ I always thought that the last line parsed as, "How many [kits, cats, sacks, wives] were going to St. Ives?", making the answer zero. $\endgroup$ May 27 '15 at 2:26

There's no specific name for this kind of riddles, I'd classify them "too broad". In fact, the answer simply relies on the interpretation of the text (what do we know about the intentions of the men and the wives?), allowing multiple answers due to this ambiguity.

There's no information about the origin of these ambiguous riddle. Though, the very first presence of the greek word "griphos" with the meaning of enigmas based on cunning rather than knowledge is credited to Aristophanes (The Wasps). Subsequently, Clearchus of Soli wrote the "Peri griphōn", a work about riddles.

One of these ancients riddles was written by Aristotle, this is the text (translated):

Those we got we leave; those we didn't get we keep

You may think he's referring to fish, though he's alluding to lice!

About the answers to your question, ghosts_in_the_code has already answered correctly, no need to copy/paste his post.

www.treccani.it (written in italian)

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    $\begingroup$ I wouldn't classify them as "too broad," since both the examples given have a single, definitive correct answer; they just contain a lot of other misleading information. The example you give, on the other hand, is an example of "too broad." $\endgroup$ May 27 '15 at 14:38

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