Let me riddle you a riddle: “How far is it from the first of July to London Bridge?” Stumped for an answer? Then try this one: “If a bushel of apples cost ten shillings, how long will it take for an oyster to eat its way through a barrel of soap?”
These two perplexing queries were provided by John Camden Hotten, in his Slang Dictionary of 1865, as examples to illustrate the word carwhichet, or carriwitchet, as he preferred to spell it. His version was as good as anybody’s, since the term has never been used enough to settle to an agreed form and everybody who has used it has made their own guess about the spelling.
A carwhichet (let’s stick with that version) is a hoaxing question or conundrum, sometimes a mere pun or bit of verbal byplay. Here is one of its more ancient appearances:
A Quibbler is a Jugler of Words, that shows Tricks with them, to make them appear what they were not meant for, and serve two Senses at once. ... He dances on a Rope of Sand, does the Somerset, Strapado, and half-strapado with Words, plays at all manner of Games with Clinches, Carwickets and Quibbles, and talks under-Leg.
The Character of a Quibbler, from the Genuine Remains in Verse and Prose of Mr Samuel Butler, Volume 2. Though published in 1759, this was actually written about 1680. A clinch (or clench) and a quibble were other names for the games with words that Butler’s quibbler was so expert at. Quibble only later took on its modern sense of a petty or legalistic objection. Somerset is an old version of somersault. Under-leg remains mysterious.
Nobody knows where the word comes from, however you spell it. A link with French colifichet has been cautiously suggested. In that language, it refers to a small object of little value, a bauble, knick-knack or trinket. This had developed from the old coeffichet for a hair accessory (from coeff, a coif) through confusion in part with colle, glue, source of French and English collage.