Google Answers Logo
View Question
Q: Why is a mouse that spins? To higher the few. ( Answered 5 out of 5 stars,   5 Comments )
Subject: Why is a mouse that spins? To higher the few.
Category: Arts and Entertainment
Asked by: zphd13-ga
List Price: $10.00
Posted: 16 Dec 2002 05:58 PST
Expires: 15 Jan 2003 05:58 PST
Question ID: 125315
What is the origin and meaning of the riddle: "Why is a mouse that
spins?  To higher the few."

Here's what I know about it.  30 years ago I heard the riddle.  The
person who told it to me said it was a "philosophical joke."  Later I
found essentially the same riddle, with a few minor changes, in a
short story by Eric Frank Russell from the 1950s.  In that story
aliens had invaded Earth and the hero used that riddle along with
other nonsense to convince the aliens we were too illogical.  From the
context, it looked like the reader was supposed to recognize the
riddle.  I cannot remember the name of the story.

My father, who was born in 1923, recognized the riddle but could not
remember anything about it.

My best guess is that the riddle dates from early in the 1900s.  I
like to believe it has some underlying meaning of some sort.  The
story also used "Marzie Doats" ("Mares eat oats").  I suspect the
riddle is similar in that it sounds like nonsense but it is not just
random words.
Subject: Re: Why is a mouse that spins? To higher the few.
Answered By: smudgy-ga on 16 Dec 2002 07:58 PST
Rated:5 out of 5 stars
Hi zphd,

I hope you find the following answer satisfying. If not, please
request a clarification before rating the question and I will do my
best to supply further information.

Your joke is one of several "nonsense" riddles which have been
floating around the world for some time. The other ones that I know

"What is the difference between a duck? ... One has wheels."


"A rhino and an elephant are taking a shower together. The rhino says,
'Please pass the soap.' And the elephant says, 'No soap! Radio!"

As for your joke, when I originally heard it, it went "Why is a mouse
when it spins? Becahse the higher, the fewer." I even recall having
heard an explanation for this -- something to do with steam engines.

A web search on Google for <"the higher the fewer"> and <"the higher
the fewer" steam engine> produced the following results. The following
page gives an etymology to the joke which claims the original riddle
actually made sense (as relates to steam engines):

It Goes on the Shelf #10

--- Begin quoted material --
Notes & Queries, V.1 & 2, compiled by Brian Whitaker, Fourth Estate,
London, 1990, 185 & 216pp, 6 pounds sterling each...

Another entry was on the meaning of the curious nonsense riddle Why is
a mouse when he spins? and its even sillier answer, The higher, the
fewer. This was one of my father's favorites. The most interesting
answer was that it is not altogether nonsense - properly it should go
How is a mouse when it spins? - The higher, the fewer. And the meaning
had to do with the centrifugal governor on an old steam engine - the
weight was called the mouse, and as the engine rpm increased the mouse
would rise due to centrifugal force. But as the mouse rose, the arm
would force the steam valve in the more closed direction, thus
reducing the rpm, that is, the higher (the mouse), the fewer (rpms).
So for a given setting of the mouse on the arm, the engine would run
at a constant speed.

--- End quoted material --

The reference at the top of the quote is the book in which the editor
of "It Goes on the Shelf" found the etymology. "It Goes on the Shelf"
seems to be a review of various fun-facts books and other interesting

This etymology would certainly align with your notion that the riddle
originates from the 1900s or so. It also coincides with another
(supposedly older) version of the riddle found at another page
resulting from the same search:

"Why is a mouse when it spins? Because the higher they fly the fewer,
and the engine driver's name was Smith. Why was his name Smith?
Because his father's name was Smith."

This page also gives a few interesting examples of other uses for "The
higher, the fewer" as common parlance for various people.

I also recall this riddle appearing in an episode of Star Trek: The
Next Generation, but I do not know which episode. Perhaps a fellow
researcher can point it out to you. One half or the other of the
riddle has appeared in a variety of other conexts, including parts of
music titles, etc. (There is a band named "The Higher The Fewer" (1)
and Harry' Aerial Ballet had an album which asked on the back cover,
"Why is a mouse that spins?" (2).)


I hope this answer has satisfied your curiosity. If not, please
request a clarification before rating the answer and I will do my best
to accomodate you.

Good luck!
zphd13-ga rated this answer:5 out of 5 stars
The answer wasn't totally satisfying, but only because I wanted a more
interesting answer.  Smudgy gave me a legitimate answer, possibly
accurate and certainly more info than I had before.  I now have some
leads to pursue.

Subject: Re: Why is a mouse that spins? To higher the few.
From: pinkfreud-ga on 16 Dec 2002 08:13 PST
Just a little addendum to Smudgy's excellent answer:

The episode of "Star Trek: TNG" in which the phrase "the higher, the
fewer" appears is entitled "Cost of Living."
Subject: Re: Why is a mouse that spins? To higher the few.
From: efn-ga on 16 Dec 2002 11:54 PST
Another minor addendum:  "Harry's Aerial Ballet" refers to the album
"Aerial Ballet" by the late Harry Nilsson, who recorded under the name
of "Nilsson."
Subject: Re: Why is a mouse that spins? To higher the few.
From: snapanswer-ga on 16 Dec 2002 20:11 PST
Interesting question and answer.  I only wanted to add a comment in
reference to Star Trek the Next Generation.  "The higher, the fewer"
is a quote spoken repeatedly by Lieutenant Worf's young son Alexander
in the episode.

As I recall, it is presented in an enigmatic way that thoroughly
annoys Worf.
Subject: Re: Why is a mouse that spins? To higher the few.
From: magnesium-ga on 02 Jan 2003 16:55 PST
I had seen that "Star Trek TNG" episode, and I didn't have the
foggiest notion what "The higher the fewer" meant! Reading through
this answer was an education.
Subject: Re: Why is a mouse that spins? To higher the few.
From: wbb-ga on 15 Sep 2004 08:27 PDT
Actually, the real riddle, as I grew up with it in Colorado, asked by
my grandmother, and passed down through our family, was:

"Why is a mouse when it spins?"the answer being:
"The higher- the fewer, the lower- the seldom."

The variations are due to the verbal nature of its being handed down
the generations. Because it doesn't make any sense- it is prone to
understandable mutations.

Great idea about the steam engine thing- but I don't buy it. It is
just the turn-of-the-century version of elephant jokes. Just nonsense
for nonsense sake. (But it does make a great code for parent- children

Important Disclaimer: Answers and comments provided on Google Answers are general information, and are not intended to substitute for informed professional medical, psychiatric, psychological, tax, legal, investment, accounting, or other professional advice. Google does not endorse, and expressly disclaims liability for any product, manufacturer, distributor, service or service provider mentioned or any opinion expressed in answers or comments. Please read carefully the Google Answers Terms of Service.

If you feel that you have found inappropriate content, please let us know by emailing us at with the question ID listed above. Thank you.
Search Google Answers for
Google Answers  

Google Home - Answers FAQ - Terms of Service - Privacy Policy