noun enig·ma \ i-ˈnig-mə , e- \
|Updated on: 15 Jul 2018

Definition of enigma

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

Examples of enigma in a Sentence

  1. Despite the enigma of the singularity, the big bang theory is unquestionably one of the most successful ideas in the history of science. —Tom YulsmanAstronomySeptember 1999
  2. 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 BlumenthalNew York Times10 Jan. 1998
  3. 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 Beauvoirtranslated and edited by H. M. Parshley, The Second Sex1953
  4. To his friends, he was always something of an enigma.

  5. one of the great enigmas of our time

Recent Examples of enigma from the Web

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.

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.

Origin and Etymology of enigma

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

Synonym Discussion of 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

ENIGMA Defined for English Language Learners


Definition of enigma for English Language Learners

  • : someone or something that is difficult to understand or explain

ENIGMA Defined for Kids


noun enig·ma \ i-ˈnig-mə \

Definition of enigma for Students

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

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one who attends or assists a leader

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