When Is a Mouse If It Spins? Because the Higher It Gets the Fewer

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.

Continue reading When Is a Mouse If It Spins? Because the Higher It Gets the Fewer

Notes:

  1. 1892 October 29, The Manchester Guardian, Christmas Books, Quote Page 9, Column 2, Manchester, England. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 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