Once upon a time, riddles were respectable. Their antiquity and function can be guessed at from the word’s origin in Old English raedan, “a story or interpretation”, which is cognate with words meaning “counsel, opinion, conjecture” and is also the origin of our modern word read. Such poems (for in its original form the riddle was a verse form) were a regular part of entertainment and instruction, an elevated form of guessing game.
Alas, the riddle is now a debased form, more a play on words than something that demands thought and skill in its solving. Recent events in North America, however, confirm that the riddle — even in this debased form — is far from dead. Nobody seems to be absolutely sure how it started, but quite suddenly everybody concerned with words, from librarians to newspaper columnists to dictionary makers to Usenet newsgroups such as alt.usage.english and rec.puzzles were deluged with enquiries along the lines of “There are three words in English ending in -gry. I only know hungry and angry. Please tell me what the third one is. I’m going mad trying to find the answer”. The reason why so many people were tearing their hair out is that there is no third common word in English ending in -gry, though there are several rare or obsolete ones. So why were so many people desperate to find something that didn’t exist?
It seems that the question had been taken from some old book of puzzles, had been given publicity, perhaps on a radio programme (Richard Lederer says it was on the Bob Grant radio talk show on WMCA in New York City in 1975), had taken the fancy of large numbers of people, and had been passed by word of mouth across North America, becoming corrupted on the way, until later hearers only received the bastardised version I’ve already quoted. I’ve seen various versions of the supposed original form of the riddle. It may have have been something like:
There are two words that end with “gry”.
Angry is one and hungry is another.
What is the third word.
Everyone uses it every day and
Everyone knows what it means.
If you have been listening,
I have already told you what the word is.
One of the first mistakes in transmission appears to have been the inclusion of a question mark at the end of the third line. This turned a simple bit of verbal trickery, whose answer is “what”, into a fruitless exercise in lexicographic detective work. Another version is:
Think of words ending in “gry”.
Angry and hungry are two of them.
There are only three words in the English language.
What is the third word?
The word is something that everyone uses every day.
If you have listened carefully,
I have already told you what it is.
and in this case the answer must surely be “language” (the third word in “the English language”).
Yet a third version claiming to be the original was published in the US magazine Parade in March 1997, in a letter from Charles Wiedemann of New Jersey, who was responding to an article on the mystery by Marilyn Vos Savant. His version is:
There are at least three words
In the English language that end in g or y.
One of them is “hungry”, and another one is “angry”.
There is a third word, a short one,
Which you probably say every day.
If you are listening carefully to everything I say,
You just heard me say it three times.
What is it?
which relies on verbal trickery to confuse the quickly-said “g or y” with “gry”. The answer is actually “say”.
In one form or another the basic riddle seems to have been known for many years (one person is quoted in the alt.usage.english FAQ as saying “I heard this riddle 20 years ago from a fiddle player. He got it from his wife who taught pre-school”). Several librarians in the US report that it is a common question, to which long ago they determined stock answers, confirming that it is far from new. It seems it has also crossed the Atlantic, as it is quoted as a question asked of the Oxford Word and Language Service (OWLS) in Questions of English.
Everybody is very pleased that this most recent peak of interest in the riddle is now over and we can get back to some real work. Here, for the record and in case anybody is still interested, are a few other words in -gry that do exist in English, though only specialist dictionary-makers and students of the history of the language have even heard of most of them. I have left out compounds such as land-hungry.
aggry: Coloured and variegated glass beads of ancient manufacture, found buried in the ground in Africa. A word of unknown origin. Seemingly always used attributively, as in aggry beads.
braggry: A variant form of braggery. Obsolete.
conyngry: An obsolete dialectal variant of conyger, itself an obsolete term meaning “rabbit warren”.
gry: The smallest unit in Locke’s proposed decimal system of linear measurement, being the tenth of a line, the hundredth of an inch, and the thousandth of a (“philosophical”) foot. Also the grunt of a pig, an insignificant trifle, or a verb meaning to roar. Obsolete.
iggry: Egyptian colloquial Arabic pronunciation of ijri: “Hurry up!”, brought back after the First World War by members of British and Australian forces who had fought in Egypt.
meagry: Having a meagre appearance. Obsolete.
nangry: A variant form of angry. Obsolete.
podagry: Dodder, or the condition of a plant infested with it.
puggry: A variant form of puggree, a light turban or head-covering worn by inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent.
It’s a pretty meagre (or meagry) selection ...