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

Essential Meaning of enigma

: someone or something that is difficult to understand or explain To his friends, he was always something of an enigma. one of the great enigmas of our time

Full Definition of enigma

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

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
See More
Recent Examples on the Web The smallest and innermost of Uranus and the the eighth largest moon in the Solar System, respectively, are something of a volcanic enigma. Jamie Carter, Forbes, 8 Oct. 2021 Patterson wishes more people would treat transgender people like people, not an enigma. Leilani Miller, The Salt Lake Tribune, 29 Oct. 2021 Writer-narrators from discouraging backgrounds are prone in their comfortable middle age to ponder obsessively the dreams of their fathers or the enigma of their arrival in a once unaccommodating and now welcoming world. Pankaj Mishra, The New York Review of Books, 20 Oct. 2021 Perhaps the most important factor on Saturday for Arkansas will not be the enigma at the quarterback position, or the security the Razorback linebackers and safeties provide. Ross Fisher, Dallas News, 8 Sep. 2021 The Cardinal are somewhat of an enigma this season. Alex Vejar, The Salt Lake Tribune, 1 Sep. 2021 Many have speculated about the meaning of the number 1232 scratched into the rock along with a Latin inscription, calling it everything from an enigma to a hoax. From Usa Today Network And Wire Reports, USA TODAY, 25 Aug. 2021 Bird admits at the outset of his fluidly engaging book that Carter was and remains an enigma. Kai Bird, The Christian Science Monitor, 19 Aug. 2021 The Surf Lodge is an enigma of a Hamptons-area hotel. Madeline Diamond, Travel + Leisure, 13 Aug. 2021

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.

See More

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

Learn More About enigma

Dictionary Entries Near enigma




See More Nearby Entries 

Statistics for enigma

Last Updated

20 Nov 2021

Cite this Entry

“Enigma.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/enigma. Accessed 30 Nov. 2021.

Style: MLA
MLACheck Mark Icon ChicagoCheck Mark Icon APACheck Mark Icon Merriam-WebsterCheck Mark Icon

More Definitions for enigma


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.

More from Merriam-Webster on enigma

Nglish: Translation of enigma for Spanish Speakers

Britannica English: Translation of enigma for Arabic Speakers

Britannica.com: Encyclopedia article about enigma


Test Your Vocabulary

Difficult Spelling Words Quiz

  • alphabet pasta spelling help
  • Which is the correct spelling?
Name That Thing

Test your visual vocabulary with our 10-question challenge!

Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!