enig·​ma | \ i-ˈnig-mə How to pronounce enigma (audio) , e-\

Definition of enigma

1 : something hard to understand or explain
2 : an inscrutable or mysterious person
3 : an obscure speech or writing

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Choose the Right Synonym for enigma

mystery, problem, enigma, riddle, puzzle mean something which baffles or perplexes. mystery applies to what cannot be fully understood by reason or less strictly to whatever resists or defies explanation. the mystery of the stone monoliths problem applies to a question or difficulty calling for a solution or causing concern. problems created by high technology enigma applies to utterance or behavior that is very difficult to interpret. his suicide remains an enigma riddle suggests an enigma or problem involving paradox or apparent contradiction. the riddle of the reclusive pop star puzzle applies to an enigma or problem that challenges ingenuity for its solution. the thief's motives were a puzzle for the police

Are you an enigma?

A person who is described as an enigma is a bit of a mystery. You never know what that person is really thinking, or what his or her motives for doing something are. An enigma is not easily understood especially because he or she has a confusing mixture of qualities that seem to be in opposition to one another—for example, the attention-seeking but reclusive musician, or the brilliant lawyer who gets lost on the drive home from the grocery store.

The word enigma originally referred not to people but to words, and specifically to words that formed a riddle or complicated metaphor that tested the listener's or reader's alertness and cleverness. This meaning is clearly connected to the word's history. Enigma comes from a Greek word that means "to speak in riddles."

The word enigma didn't jump from referring to riddles to referring to people. In between those uses, it was (and still is) applied to things that puzzle people. Egypt's meticulously constructed Pyramids of Giza or a theory of quantum physics, for example, might be described as enigmas. In these uses, the meaning is simply a figurative extension of the original "riddle" sense.

Examples of enigma in a Sentence

Despite the enigma of the singularity, the big bang theory is unquestionably one of the most successful ideas in the history of science. — Tom Yulsman, Astronomy, September 1999 Many scholars call it the ultimate enigma of the Nazi era, indeed perhaps of modern history: How did the Holocaust happen? And why in Germany? — Ralph Blumenthal, New York Times, 10 Jan. 1998 Indeed, the bond that in every individual connects the physiological life and the psychic life—or better the relation existing between the contingence of an individual and the free spirit that assumes it—is the deepest enigma implied in the condition of being human, and this enigma is presented in its most disturbing form in woman. — Simone de Beauvoir, translated and edited by H. M. Parshley, The Second Sex, 1953 To his friends, he was always something of an enigma. one of the great enigmas of our time
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Recent Examples on the Web

To many Westerners, the Caucasus, denoting both a mountain range and the constellation of ex-Soviet territories that spans it, still seems shrouded in enigma. Henry Wismayer, WSJ, "Trekking Through a Mysterious, Mesmerizing Old World," 2 May 2019 Aside from her academic work, Coan seems to be somewhat of an enigma. Amy Mackelden, Harper's BAZAAR, "Jude Law’s New Wife, Phillipa Coan, Wants to Tackle Climate Change," 2 May 2019 Intel’s Optane Memory H10 SSD is one of those enigmas of PC hardware that can drive reviewers crazy. Gordon Mah Ung, PCWorld, "Intel Optane Memory H10 SSD Review: How it could speed up your next laptop," 22 Apr. 2019 On a recent Friday, the mood was tremulous, the air scented with cinnamon and enigma. Alexis Soloski, New York Times, "Sleights of Hand With Cards, Coins and a Colander," 26 June 2018 The answers to these etiquette enigmas (and others that the Brits have had figured out for centuries) here. Town & Country, "The 1% Daily," 21 Feb. 2014 What made the role so tricky is that Gary Hart was an enigma. Adam Rathe, Town & Country, "What Making The Front Runner Taught Director Jason Reitman About Politics and Privacy," 21 Nov. 2018 In an effort to settle the enigma once and for all, Allure tapped six professional makeup artists for their opinions. Kaleigh Fasanella, Allure, "Should You Apply Concealer or Foundation First? Here’s What Makeup Artists Say," 30 Aug. 2018 Who can penetrate the enigma of Jean-Luc Godard (Louis Garrel)? Peter Keough, BostonGlobe.com, "Godardian pretensions in ‘Godard Mon Amour’," 25 Apr. 2018

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

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First Known Use of enigma

1539, in the meaning defined at sense 3

History and Etymology for enigma

Latin aenigma, from Greek ainigmat-, ainigma, from ainissesthai to speak in riddles, from ainos fable

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Statistics for enigma

Last Updated

17 Jun 2019

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Time Traveler for enigma

The first known use of enigma was in 1539

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More Definitions for enigma



English Language Learners Definition of enigma

: someone or something that is difficult to understand or explain


enig·​ma | \ i-ˈnig-mə How to pronounce enigma (audio) \

Kids Definition of enigma

: someone or something that is hard to understand Why she quit the team is an enigma to me.

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More from Merriam-Webster on enigma

Rhyming Dictionary: Words that rhyme with enigma

Thesaurus: All synonyms and antonyms for enigma

Spanish Central: Translation of enigma

Nglish: Translation of enigma for Spanish Speakers

Britannica English: Translation of enigma for Arabic Speakers

Britannica.com: Encyclopedia article about enigma

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