enig·​ma i-ˈnig-mə How to pronounce enigma (audio)
: something hard to understand or explain
: an inscrutable or mysterious person
: an obscure speech or writing

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Enigma comes from a Greek word that means "to speak in riddles." It applies to things, as well as to people, that puzzle one's mind. Egypt's ancient pyramids and quantum mechanics, for example, might be described as enigmas, as well as physicist Stephen Hawking. In these uses, the word's meaning is a figurative extension of the original "riddle" sense.

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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.

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

Example Sentences

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
Recent Examples on the Web Roberts admits that his subject was a bit of an enigma. Richard Horan, The Christian Science Monitor, 7 Feb. 2023 His melodies are familiar but the composer himself remains something of an enigma. Wsj Books Staff, WSJ, 19 Aug. 2022 And the newest players in this arena won't treat it as such, even if their products remain something of an enigma. Gabe Lacques, USA TODAY, 11 Feb. 2022 In the time between Die Lit and Whole Lotta Red, Carti remained nothing short of an enigma. Jeff Ihaza, Rolling Stone, 15 Mar. 2021 Auburn’s offense has been an enigma for much of the season, and Saturday was no different. Tom Green | Tgreen@al.com, al, 29 Oct. 2022 For many years, the simple, rectangular midcentury modern building, set among Balboa Park’s ornate Spanish Colonial Revival architecture, was an enigma. San Diego Union-Tribune, 5 June 2022 Williams didn’t anticipate missing the first four games of the season for the second straight year, but the shoulder injury suffered in training camp has been an enigma. cleveland, 4 Oct. 2020 Irving has been an enigma throughout his career, whether with Cleveland, Boston or Brooklyn. Jeff Zillgitt, USA TODAY, 6 Feb. 2023 See More

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.

Word History


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

First Known Use

1539, in the meaning defined at sense 3

Time Traveler
The first known use of enigma was in 1539


Dictionary Entries Near enigma

Cite this Entry

“Enigma.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/enigma. Accessed 22 Mar. 2023.

Kids Definition


enig·​ma i-ˈnig-mə How to pronounce enigma (audio)
: something hard to understand or explain
also enigmatical

More from Merriam-Webster on enigma

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