J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, March 28, 2016

A Plagiarized Puzzle

On N.P.R. Weekend Edition yesterday, Will Shortz announced this as the puzzle for the week:
The University Press of New England has just published a book by Boston College professor Paul Lewis, called The Citizen Poets of Boston: A Collection of Forgotten Poems, 1789-1820. It has a chapter devoted to puzzles in poetic form. Most of the puzzles are explained—but one puzzle never had a printed answer.

I’d like to see if the collective brainpower of NPR listeners can be brought to bear to clear up this mystery. It’s a two-line verse from the Nov. 12, 1803, issue of the Boston Weekly Magazine:
I am both man and woman too,
And go to school as good boys do.
If you can solve this riddle, let us know. I’ll select what I think is the best answer that’s submitted. If no one sends what I judge to be the intended answer, then I’ll pick what I consider the most ingenious one, whether it’s “correct” or not.
Headlined “A Rebus,” that puzzle was published as “For the Boston Weekly Magazine” and credited to “R. S. G.”

However, the same puzzle had appeared in the London Magazine, or Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer in December 1759, as shown below.
So “R. S. G.” might have some explaining to do.

Samuel Johnson defined a rebus as “a word represented by a picture.” However, this magazine and popular culture used the term to mean a puzzle-poem challenging readers to identify a word based on its parts, either syllables or letters. Here’s an example that Paul Revere wrote for his soon-to-be second wife, Rachel. This London Magazine page has another example.

So what was the original solution to this rebus? It appeared in the March 1760 issue of the London Magazine. If you want to know, click on the box below to enlarge the image.
Frankly, I think N.P.R. listeners can do better.

6 comments:

Witt's End said...

A ruler?

John Mc said...

Could it be a Teacher?

J. L. Bell said...

It’s possible that the solution the magazine printed wasn’t the “official” answer intended by the creator of the original couplet, but simply one answer that a reader proffered in poetic form and therefore saw published. But this is the closest to an original answer as I’ve found.

J. L. Bell said...

An answer I think is more clever is “a ruler.” In 1759 either a man or a woman could be a ruler depending on circumstances, and schoolboys carried rulers to school for their writing lessons.

J. L. Bell said...

Two of us independently came up with “ruler” (Witt’s End and I didn’t see each other’s comments before posting), so that may be the frontrunner from the 2016 perspective.

Back in 1759, and even in the early 1800s, teaching school was a predominantly male profession. There were female teachers, of course, but they taught in less official ways: in private dame schools, private lessons in skills, or specialized private schools for girls. So I don’t think people of that time would have thought of a teacher or schoolmaster as being either male or female. It’s a good answer for our times, though.

J. L. Bell said...

Will Shortz's preferred answer was indeed "ruler." He also noted "teacher" and an answer that was almost certainly inconceivable when the puzzle was originally published: "clownfish," a hermaphroditic animal that travels in schools.

No one appears to have suggested "I."