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 There are ways in which Wilson, in his eighth season in the N.F.L., is still a question mark, still an enigma to those outside his immediate sphere. Kurt Streeter, New York Times, "The Unbearable Lightness of Being Russell Wilson," 4 Jan. 2020 This will either turn you into some kind of mysterious, possibly-gay enigma or completely shut you off from the world in a way that LGBTQ+ people have fought so hard not to be. Rosie Mulford, refinery29.com, "Why I Shouldn’t Have To Come Out Again (And Again) In 2020," 2 Jan. 2020 The brain is, at least to me, an enigma wrapped in a mystery. Chris Lee, Ars Technica, "Neurons hide their memories in their imaginary fluctuations," 20 Oct. 2019 Despite being the source of all life on Earth and the definitional center of the solar system, the sun is still something of an enigma. Wired, "Space Photos of the Week: Parker's Potential," 7 Dec. 2019 India’s corporate funding market is what Winston Churchill might have described as a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. Andy Mukherjee | Bloomberg, Washington Post, "How Can India Inc. Get Over Its Financing Hump?," 13 Mar. 2019 Finally, welcome Tom Steyer to the stage! Steyer, one of the enigmas of the 2020 campaign, will make his debate debut Tuesday evening. Mike Hofman, Fortune, "Democratic Debate: How to Watch, Start Time—and 8 Key Things to Watch for During It," 15 Oct. 2019 In his first 15 years on the high court, Stevens was often described as an enigma and quirky. Los Angeles Times, "John Paul Stevens, retired Supreme Court justice, dead at 99," 16 July 2019 Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip's only daughter, Princess Anne, has always been a bit of an enigma, even to avid royals followers. Jessica Radloff, Glamour, "Erin Doherty's Princess Anne Is the Best Part of The Crown Season 3," 18 Nov. 2019

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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Time Traveler for enigma

Time Traveler

The first known use of enigma was in 1539

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Statistics for enigma

Last Updated

14 Jan 2020

Cite this Entry

“Enigma.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/enigma. Accessed 17 January 2020.

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More Definitions for enigma


How to pronounce enigma (audio)

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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Comments on enigma

What made you want to look up enigma? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).


a plan in which a last survivor takes all

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