An Unsolvable Riddle?


The following riddle appeared on the April 25, 1868 edition of Once a Week. It was claimed by the anonymous composer of the riddle that it is insoluble:

When from the ark’s capacious round,
The world went forth in pairs,
Whose ready ears first heard the sound
Of boots. upon the stairs?

The riddle was somehow attributed to Archbishop Richard Whately.  Apparently, Whately offered £5 to anyone who can solve the riddle.

A lady who saw the riddle sent it to her sister who was in Germany, who in turn gave it to a German professor. After some time, the professor came up with an involute answer and then sent it to Whately. The bemused Archbishop wrote back and told him that he was not the author of the riddle.

Here is the professor’s answer:

To him who cons the matter o’er,
A little thought reveals, —
He heard it first who went before
A pair of soles and eels.

While I commend the clever puns, I feel that the answer was unsatisfactory. Nonetheless, no better answer had bee presented so this may as well be the correct answer or at least, a potential answer. Perhaps, it would be bootless to ponder upon this too much.

Note: To those who didn’t get the pun, “bootless” has an archaic usage which means “a useless undertaking”.

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My name Edmark M. Law. I work as a freelance writer, mainly writing about science and mathematics. I am an ardent hobbyist. I like to read, solve puzzles, play chess, make origami and play basketball. In addition, I dabble in magic, particularly card magic and other sleight-of-hand type magic. I live in Hong Kong. You can find me on Twitter` and Facebook. My email is

17 thoughts on “An Unsolvable Riddle?

  1. Hey dear, I have nominated u for the Liebster Award. Check this out-
    Best wishes and regards! :)

    Liked by 3 people

  2. “Bootless” – I will have to share that word with my boss who is a wordsmith as you know. I did not get the riddle, so I’m glad you gave us the clue. I am quite behind again in Reader again, likely since I spent an inordinate amount of time doing yesterday’s post. A friend posted this story – I know not why as she is not interested in mathematics, but you are, so I’m passing it along to you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The riddle is an ambiguous one, that’s for sure.

      I’ve been expecting the Mersenne project will be able to find the next Mersenne prime at the beginning of next year since it’s been a while since the last Mersenne prime was found. Having them found it this year was a surprise. But then again, there has been an increased effort in this project, so this has to be expected I suppose.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Mathematicians’ interest in finding the next biggest prime number has always been strong.

        Merseene prime is a special case though. Since Marin Mersenne first studied it, many mathematicians have become fascinated to it over the years.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Okay, thank you for the explanation Edmark – I didn’t realize what was driving them to pursue it so relentlessly. I am glad you were able to open the link because after I sent it, I wondered if you could access it. I have sent links to fellow bloggers in the UK or Scandinavian countries about something pertaining to their blog that I see over here, and they are not able to open/access it.


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