co·​nun·​drum kə-ˈnən-drəm How to pronounce conundrum (audio)
: an intricate and difficult problem
He is faced with the conundrum of trying to find a job without having experience.
: a question or problem having only a conjectural answer
… the political conundrums involved, particularly the problem of how the richer areas … can be made to subsidize the poorer. Douglass Cater
: a riddle whose answer is or involves a pun (as in "Why didn't the lost hikers starve in the desert? Because of the sand which is there.")

Did you know?

The exact origin of conundrum isn't known with certainty. What is known is that the word has been in use since the early 1600s, and that it had various spellings, such as conimbrum, quonundrum, conuncrum, and quadundrum, before the current spelling was finally established sometime in the mid-17th century. One theory of origin suggests that the word was coined as a parody of Latin by students at Oxford University, where it appears to have enjoyed particular popularity in its "word play" or "pun" sense. While the prevalent sense in this century is that of the seemingly unanswerable question or problem, frequently applied to heady dilemmas involving ethics, sociology, or economics, the word is sometimes so loosely applied to anything enigmatic as to be synonymous with puzzle or mystery.

Example Sentences

… giving parents a wealth of educational options sometimes presents a familiar inner-city conundrum: What if all your choices are bad ones? Katherine Boo, New Yorker, 9 Apr. 2001 Mention of poor eyes and good eyes brings me to the creationist's favorite conundrum. What is the use of half an eye? Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden, 1995 The explanation of this conundrum is to be heard, at this very moment, on certain surreptitious radio waves, on which the voice of the American convert Bilal is … transmuted into the thunderous speech of the Imam himself. Salman Rushdie, Harper's, December 1988 the conundrum of how an ancient people were able to build such massive structures without the benefit of today's knowledge and technology
Recent Examples on the Web Here’s a spooky conundrum: Is a spore alive or dead? WIRED, 31 Oct. 2022 The dispute in part is a conundrum that has plagued college campuses for centuries — the quality of the food versus how new students adjust to living and surviving on their own for the first time. Ernie Suggs, ajc, 5 Oct. 2022 That is the exciting, dramatic conundrum for our heroine. Hunter Ingram, Variety, 2 Sep. 2022 But the Wolverines have, at minimum, a conundrum on how to handle the position. Detroit Free Press, 1 Sep. 2022 For a lot of performers, the power ballad is both a bond with their audience and a conundrum — albeit, a nice problem to have. Christopher Borrelli, Chicago Tribune, 22 June 2022 About the same time, Twitter was confronted with another conundrum: the candidacy of Trump, who made Twitter central to his 2016 presidential campaign. Washington Post, 9 May 2022 Day’s frustration, though, was not his most revealing admission about this short-yardage conundrum. Nathan Baird, cleveland, 13 Nov. 2022 To solve this conundrum will require a combination of idealism and realism. Bob Sternfels, Fortune, 10 Nov. 2022 See More

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'conundrum.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

Word History


origin unknown

First Known Use

1645, in the meaning defined at sense 2

Time Traveler
The first known use of conundrum was in 1645

Dictionary Entries Near conundrum

Cite this Entry

“Conundrum.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 6 Dec. 2022.

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co·​nun·​drum kə-ˈnən-drəm How to pronounce conundrum (audio)

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