Comical Conundrums: What’s So Funny?

Good dinners by William Heath Rare Books and Special Collections

Heath, William. Good dinners. Manuscript: Folio. London, England: Thomas McLean, 1824. From McGill University Library, Rare Books and Special Collections, (accessed Feb. 10, 2019).

Have you ever ordered food, just to be greeted with a dish of roaring laughter? At the fin de siècle of the 20th century, guests would gather at events called Conundrum Suppers, in which diners would order from menus written entirely in riddles. What was the point of this puzzling pastime? Well…because it was fun!

Clever guests would be pleased when their food arrived. However, the success of the event hinged on unfortunate victims! Following the orders, “[a]ll manner of laughable mistakes and surprises are sure to follow,”[1] because it was amusing to try and guess what your meal might be, “and many a person got rather a queer supper by his unlucky guesses.”[2] Some of the riddles were also funny jokes! Some “Elevated Felines,” perhaps? (Catsup, or Ketchup, in other words!)

The link between riddling menus and humour existed since at least the early 18th century. Last year, McGill acquired a comical riddling manuscript drawn by William Heath. Books like these were rented out by publishers “for evening parties, at which these portfolios of caricatures became a very fashionable amusement.”[3] Comical publications occasionally found their way to the riddling dinner table, producing hearty laughter.[4]

Find out more here. Do you have a comical riddle to share? Reach out to @McGillLib, @McGillRoaar or email nathalie [dot] cooke@mcgill [dot] ca.


1) El Paso Daily Herald. Newspaper. El Paso, Texas: Herald News Co., Nov. 19, 1898. From Library of Congress, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. (accessed Feb. 10, 2019).

2) Lewisto Evening Journal. Newspaper. Lewiston, Maine: N/A, Jan. 21, 1893. From Google News. (accessed Feb. 10, 2019).

3) Murray, John. The Quarterly Review 119. Journal. London, England: Murray, 1866. From Google Books. (accessed Feb. 10, 2019).

4) St. Lawrence Republican and Ogdensburgh Weekly Journal. Newspaper. Ogdensburgh, New York: James & Hopkins, Mar. 6, 1901. From New York State Historic Newspapers. (accessed Feb. 10, 2019).

5) Cortland Standard. Newspaper. Cortland, New York: William H. Clark and Edward D. Blodgett, Mar. 3, 1893. From New York State Historic Newspapers. (accessed Feb. 10, 2019).

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