Robert Overton? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The question and answer of the following exasperating riddle appear to be nonsensical:
Question: Why is a mouse when it spins?
Answer: The higher, the fewer.
Would you please examine the provenance of this conundrum?
Quote Investigator: Robert Overton published “Ten Minutes: Holiday Yarns and Recitations” as a Christmas book for gift-givers. “The Manchester Guardian” of Manchester, England mentioned the work in October of 1892. 1
Overton’s version of the pseudo-riddle was somewhat different. He included it in the eighteenth tale titled “A Cry from Colney Hatch”. The riddle began with “when” instead of “why”: 2
Question: When is a mouse if it spins?
Answer: Because the higher it gets the fewer.
The ill-fated protagonist Harehead encounters a prankster named Smoogleslush who tells him the question and answer of the riddle, but Harehead is unable to comprehend the conundrum. After some misadventures he is driven to madness by his inability to grasp the riddle, and he is placed into an asylum at Colney Hatch. The astute reader surmises that the two statements really form a pseudo-riddle. The pair was deliberately constructed to be unintelligible. The question and answer have no ready interpretations.
Below are additional selected citations and excerpts in chronological order.
Overton’s short tale “A Cry from Colney Hatch” begins as follows. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:
I ALWAYS thought there was insanity in our family. Now I know it. I can swear it. I can do more than that—I can prove it.
Personally, the hereditary poison might have remained in me passively latent for ever—might never have broken out—if it hadn’t been for Smoogleslush. I blame Smoogleslush. I was all right till the awful evening when he asked me the riddle that cracked my brain. I tried to solve it—not only the question, but the answer, for the latter puzzled me more than the former. I couldn’t. Until I solve it I am mad. I shall never solve it. My only hope is that the problem I am going to make public will turn other brains too. He took me unawares. He said abruptly:
“You’re pretty good at riddles, Harehead, aren’t you? I’ve heard so.”
“Well, I’ve guessed a few,” I said, modestly.
“I’m afraid mine is too simple—too obvious,” said
Smoogleslush “to be worth your solution; but such as it is, here goes: When is a mouse if it spins?”
“I beg pardon?”
“When is a mouse if it spins?”
“When is a mouse if it spins?”
“What do you mean?”
“That’s the riddle.”
“Oh, that’s the riddle—what is a mouse if it spins?”
“No, no, simpler than that. I said, WHEN is a mouse if it spins?”
“You’ve got it wrong, Smoogleslush.”
“Not at all—when is a mouse if it spins? There’s no sort of trouble about the question—the cleverness, the clearness, comes in with the answer.”
“What is the answer?”
“It’s splendid—one of those self-evident ones—makes you wonder you couldn’t see it before. You’ve got the question all right?”
“I have,” said I, firmly, beginning to be a little vexed: “When is a mouse if it spins?”
“That’s right—when is a mouse if it spins? Because the higher it gets the fewer. Ha, ha!”
“Ha, ha, ha!”
“Yes,” said I; “ha, ha, ha!”
“Plain as a pikestaff, isn’t it?”
Smoogleslush left me. I was left, as it were, face to face with that awful riddle. If Smoogleslush could see it, why couldn’t I? I repeated it to myself over and over again, but every time my brain got worse and worse. It must be obvious—there seemed something irresistibly logical in the very phraseology. Why couldn’t I see it?
The story continues as the protagonist encounters his wife, a policeman, some doctors, and a magistrate. The ultimate destination is a madhouse:
Somebody dragged me to a couple of doctors. I said at once: “When is a spins if it’s fewer? Because the mouse it gets the higher.”
I distinctly heard the doctors say they were quite willing to sign the certificate. I remember standing before a bald-headed J.P., and demanding: “Because is a gets if it’s mouse? When the fewer it highers the spinner. Ha, ha, ha!”
The magistrate signed at once, and they brought me to Colney Hatch. I know I am mad, but that is no reason why somebody shouldn’t tell me: “When is a mouse if it spins?”
On December 29, 1892 “The Cornish Telegraph” of Cornwall, England printed a slightly modified version of the elaborate story while acknowledging an unidentified “Birmingham paper”. The title is “The Riddle That Turned My Brain” and the protagonist is Flarehead. The name of the antagonist alternates between Smoogleslush and Smoggleslush. The final destination for the hapless Flarehead is an asylum in Winson Green. 3
In February 1893 the “Dorking Advertiser” in Surrey, England described a show held at the local Y.M.C.A. A performer uttered the first line of the pseudo-riddle: 4
The conundrum “When is a mouse if it spins?” by its irresistably comic delivery drew roars of laughter from all.
In March 1893 the London periodical “Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday” printed a short item containing a variant beginning with “why” instead of “when”. The words were attributed to an inebriated character: 5
New riddle by Mr. McGooseley, after an unusually heavy week:
Q. Why is a mouse when it spins? A. The higher the fewer—hic! The Mac—hic!—says he’s got many more quite as original.
In October 1894 an advertisement for a pair of comedians ran in a London newspaper called “The Era”. The pseudo-riddle appeared at the top of the ad: 6
When is a mouse if it spins?
Because the higher it goes the fewer.
MUNRO and O’TOOLE.
Eccentric Comedians and Dancers, now on Tour (Third Season) with Charles W. Poole’s Myriorama. Just finished a successful Ten Weeks’ run in Ireland, appearing at the Leinster Hall, Dublin, Five Weeks; Athenaeum, Limerick. Two Weeks.
In April 1896 “The Salt Lake Herald” of Salt Lake City, Utah printed a piece under the humorous title “Perfidious Conundrum Sprang Upon a Peaceful Town by an Enemy of Mankind”. The following excerpt shows conspirators preparing to bamboozle an unsuspecting individual. This version of the pseudo-riddle begins with “why”: 7
“Now, we’ll have a little fun,” said Mr. Dunn to Mr. Haggerty. “I’ve got a new conundrum. Here it is: ‘Why is a mouse when it spins?’ You see, it is a fool thing and I don’t want you to go crazy—you must be my confederate. We’ll work it up together. The answer is: ‘Because the higher the fewer!’ Just laugh and pretend you see it when I spring it. Sh! here comes Gourley.”
Another elaborate description of the prank appeared in “The Times-Democrat” of New Orleans, Louisiana in September 1897: 8
“All right,” said Nathen briskly, “but I don’t ‘think you’ll get it. Now why is a mouse when it spins?”
Silence reigned in the crowd. One or two nudged each other, but John wore a worried look.
“Er—isn’t that rather peculiar, Nathan?” he asked faintly. “I’m not quite sure I understood your question.”
“Oh, pshaw” said Nathan, “why, man, it’s simple enough. Why is a mouse when it spins? Don’t you see?” Emphasizing the last word as if in it lay the whole key to the mystery.
John pulled himself together.
“Oh, of course,” said he weakly in the tone of voice of a man at sea in a wash tub. “Oh, yes. I see now. I just didn’t understand what you said at first. Well, what’s the answer?”
“Yes, for heaven’s sake, what is the answer?” chimed in several others.
“Because,” said Nathan triumphantly and fixing John with his eye, “because, the higher it files the purer.”
There was a general roar of laughter. “Pretty good, old man!” “Very funny!” said they all except John. John only looked puzzled. In fact it may be said he wore a worried look.
John thought abut the pseudo-riddle extensively, but he remained confused. Finally, he approached Nathan for an explanation:
“Nathan,” said he at last, “there’s no use in talking, this thing is driving me crazy. I know I’m an awful fool, but for heaven’s sake, old man, explain that conundrum to me, because I’ll be hanged if I see any sense in it.”
“Well, that’s just it,” cried Nathan, roaring, “there isn’t any sense in it.” And he explained at length.
Well, when John did see he thought it was the funniest thing he had ever heard of.
Quotation expert Nigel Rees remarked in the July 2018 edition of “The Quote Unquote Newsletter” that the riddle might be connected to the famous “Hickory, dickory, dock” nursery rhyme. 9 The rhyme states that the mouse runs up the clock, and when the clock strikes one the mouse runs down. Thus, the following riddle is possible.
Question: When is a mouse if it spins?
Answer: One o’clock.
This answer differs greatly from the incoherent answer specified in the story.
In conclusion, Robert Overton is currently the top candidate for originator of this family of pseudo-riddles. His version entered circulation by 1892. It is possible that a version of the joke was employed by Vaudeville performers before Overton printed an instance. Future researchers may discover earlier illuminating citations.
Image Notes: Two illustrations from “Denslow’s Mother Goose” published in 1901 and available from the U.S. Library of Congress. These public domain images are available here.
(Thanks to the participants at the forum on “English Language & Usage” at Stack Exchange particularly Kenny LJ who initiated the discussion and located the pseudo-riddle in Robert Overton’s book. Also, thanks to Sven Yargs who presented several germane citations. In addition, thanks to Nigel Rees who raised this topic in the July 2018 edition of “The Quote Unquote Newsletter”. Further thanks to Dennis Lien who replied with valuable citations in the October 2018 edition of the newsletter.)
- 1892 October 29, The Manchester Guardian, Christmas Books, Quote Page 9, Column 2, Manchester, England. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1892, Ten Minutes: Holiday Yarns and Recitations by Robert Overton, Story 18: A Cry from Colney Hatch: When Is a Mouse If It Spins?, Start Page 93, End Page 96, Dean and Son, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1892 December 29, The Cornish Telegraph, Article: The Riddle That Turned My Brain (acknowledgment to a “Birmingham paper”), Quote Page 6, Column 6, Cornwall, England. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩
- 1893 February 2, Dorking Advertiser, Entertainment – The Y.M.C.A., Quote Page 3, Column 1, Dorking, Surrey, England. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩
- 1893 March 4, Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday: Founded and Conducted by Gilbert Dalziel, (Filler item), Quote Page 6, Column 1, London, England. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩
- 1894 October 13, The Era, (Advertisement for comedians Munro and O’Toole), Quote Page 27, Column 2, London, England. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1896 April 8, The Salt Lake Herald, “WHY IS A MOUSE WHEN–?”: Perfidious Conundrum Sprang Upon a Peaceful Town by an Enemy of Mankind, Quote Page 6, Column 3, Salt Lake City, Utah. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1897 September 19, The Times-Democrat, Women at Home and Abroad, Quote Page 17, Column 7, New Orleans, Louisiana. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 2018 July, The Quote Unquote Newsletter, Volume 27, Number 3, Edited by Nigel Rees, Section: Nonsense Riddles, Quote Page 10 and 11, Published and Distributed by Nigel Rees, Hillgate Place, London, Website: link ↩