Here’s a word riddle for you all:
[than My my hand’s fingers number five]
Your task is to unscramble the seven words above to create a meaningful, grammatical English sentence.
Don’t read on until you’ve figured it out or give up! I will explain the answer and why this puzzle delighted me, as a linguist, in the next paragraph. But first, some background. I did not come up with this riddle by myself. My good friend Adam sent it to me while I happened to be sitting on the toilet, and I did not get back up again until I’d sent him back an answer. He told me later that the riddle had been posed to him by his bridge mentor, who has a clever habit of making up odd, think-outside-the-box-type questions. What’s great about this is that apparently you can’t just search for the answer online. (At least, until now you won’t have been able to, but I am going to reveal the answer below. Again, don’t read on unless you want it spoiled!)
Here’s the answer: “My hand’s number than my five fingers.”
What’s the trick here? English is sly, with many homonyms, or words that have different meanings but are written exactly the same. The two homonyms in question here are hand’s and number. First, the apostrophe-s in hand’s could signify the possessive (genitive case), as in “Anne Marie Andersdatter’s son.” It could also be a contraction of the noun and is, as in “He’s an author.” Next, the word number can be read in at least three ways: a) a noun that refers to a quantity, such as 1, 2, 3… b) a verb that means to label an object or set of objects with the aforementioned term of quantity, or c) an adjective that means to be more numb, to have less feeling. Aha! There it is. Most people look at the random assemblage of words at first and automatically think that number is going to be type a, or sometimes type b, but very rarely type c. Why?
It has mostly to do with something called semantic priming. Priming is a cool psycholinguistic phenomenon in which an individual’s memory and capacity to make associations between words influences their ability to perceive newly-encountered words. For example, in an experimental setting, suppose you are asked to determine, as quickly as possible, if a word you see on a screen is a real English word or a fake word. You might see the following words in succession: TREE, BRANCH, LLAMA, BRUNCH, SPRING, BRENCH, where the bolded words are those that you have to judge, and the non-bolded words are primes that you see but do not judge. Obviously, branch and brunch are words, while brench is a non-word.
It’s easy for native English speakers to do this task, but the interesting part has to do with how quickly they do it. Judgments of lexical authenticity are faster if the word in question has been primed. So, people will be faster (we’re talking milliseconds of difference, by the way) to identify branch as a real word than brunch, since branch was primed with the semantically-related word tree, while brunch was not primed, since it has only a tenuous semantic connection to llama.
Now, this riddle is not a timed psychology experiment. How does priming relate to it, then? My hypothesis is that the juxtaposition of the words number and five primes people to perceive number as a type a or type b (semantically related to counting) rather than type c (semantically related to feeling). The same goes for the adjacent words hand’s and finger, wherein the prior knowledge a person has that “fingers belong as a set to the hand” induces them to believe that the apostrophe-s is a possessive marker rather than a contraction.
Those are the two ways people become confused when they encounter this riddle. I gave it to a few linguist friends who puzzled over it for some time. The most common obstacle was what to do with the word than that seemed strangely superfluous. They remarked that its presence seemed to necessitate a comparative, but the word more was absent. How is it that they forgot that the suffix -er also serves as a comparative marker in English, and didn’t see it in the word number? Priming. One friend was even acutely aware that there was something about that word that he was not reading correctly, but he couldn’t figure out what it was.
That’s how strong priming can be: some semantic associations we make in our minds can prevent other meanings from being accessed.
In addition to priming, there are certainly other factors at play here, such as lexical frequency. That refers to the fact that the counting-associated meanings of number are more common in English than the feeling-associated meaning, which also makes them easier and more likely to be accessed.
I hope you enjoyed the word riddle! If you come across any that you like, feel free to send them my way (leave a comment!). I’ll try to connect the key of each puzzle to linguistics somehow.
Word of the Day: a shill is a person who is paid to pretend to enjoy or participate in some activity (gambling at a casino, eating at a restaurant, etc.) in order to act as convincing ‘natural’ promotion. I believe the common perception is that a shill is usually in cahoots with a swindler, since the act of shilling seems like a dishonest business practice in general. Synonyms: plant, stooge. I came across this word in an article about Harper Lee‘s “new” novel, but it doesn’t have anything to do with this post. Perhaps there’s a theme of deception and trickery, what with the riddles? Maybe, maybe not.