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shameless pleading


Unscrewing the inscrutable.

Dear Word Detective: I’ve got quite the “conundrum” for you. What is the origin of this very obscure word? It has at least three synonyms that I know of (riddle, puzzle, enigma), so I don’t imagine it’s the first of these four to mean what it means. The online dictionary explained its meaning quite well, but nothing about its origin, and a search simply yielded countless “conundrums” that other people had. Please help. — Neil, Vancouver, BC, Canada.

Hey, you’re right. Googling “conundrum” produces 5,510,000 hits, and not a single one of them explains the origin of the word. I had to check each link, of course, because I wouldn’t be able to sleep if I didn’t follow every clue. Anybody know a good ophthalmologist? By the way, speaking of puzzles, I’m not sure I understand the second sentence of your question, so we’ll just skip that part.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines “conundrum” as “a paradoxical, insoluble, or difficult problem; a dilemma,” which covers a lot of ground. In any case, “conundrums” are generally not good things. A choice between your two favorite flavors of ice cream is not a conundrum; a choice between paying your rent or buying food is a conundrum. But it’s difficult to imagine remembering to use the word “conundrum” in such a dire situation, because “conundrum” is the sort of fancy locution, like the word “eschew,” that I seriously doubt anyone uses without careful forethought. Real people generally don’t say “conundrum.” They say “jam” or “pickle.”

Ask the folks at Oxford English Dictionary for the etymology of “conundrum,” and the answer is a terse “Origin lost,” as if it had been misplaced in a word warehouse on the outskirts of the city. The truth is more likely “origin never exactly known.” The most reasonable theory is that “conundrum” originated as a joke among university students in 16th century England, probably concocted as a pseudo-Latin nonsense word and initially used as a derogatory term for a fussy, pedantic and silly person (what the Oxford dictionary calls a “crotchet-monger”). Over the next two hundred years, “conundrum” was used to mean “a whim or silly idea” and “a pun” before it took on the sense of “a riddle the answer to which is a pun” in the late 18th century, and, soon thereafter, acquired its modern sense of “an insoluble or very difficult problem.” So the answer, unsatisfying as it may be, is that the birthplace of “conundrum” was probably just the warped imagination of a 16th century college student.

7 comments to Conundrum

  • marielle jansen

    there is a place in the UK called Conundrum. It seems to me that the word must be related to some historical event happening in that place.

  • Roland

    It could be of Celtic origin as in Connelly: From the Irish Ó Conghaile, which means “the descendent of the valorous,” so it could from the drum of Connelly or “the drum of the valorous,” which could have been a mystery or some sort of conundrum. What say ye?

  • Stuart

    The word as a place name may also have a Gaelic conotation: conon appears in several Scottish place names, as “meeting place” (e.g. Strathconon, Cononish). drum or druim is even more common, meaning “ridge”. The Gaelic also makes sense, of course, “meeting place of the ridges”.

    Getting from there to the current meaning is another matter. The place Conundrum is a farm NW of Berwick: perhaps it was the first strangely-Scottish place name English people encountered, and so by extension it passed into general usage as meaning a mystery.

  • Hannah

    If you think of “the answer to a puzzle that is a pun,” as two sharp minds meeting at a point of intellectual valor, then “the meeting point of two ridges” has a very symbolic connection to the former definition!
    Ridges do not generally “meet,” and when they do it is at quite a sharp angle; thus, two sharp minds coming together could be seen as the meeting of two ridges. When this happens in a comical manner, such as puns, it makes sense that one would need an equally comical way of describing it- hence, conundrum.

  • Paul Cappadona

    Conundrom: When deciding to do something you take into consideration all you do know and try to consider what you don’t no but it’s the part about what you don’t know what you don’t know that creates the conundrum.

  • radosch

    a road chockfull of them cones

  • hello world!

    ASAIK, there are two possible etymologies for ‘Conundrum’ listed as follow:
    1. Conundrum < E con "tricky" + Germ und "and" + E rum "strange"

    2. Conundrum < L com- “with” + OE wundor- “wonder” + L -um "noun suffix"

    Thanks for any comments!

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