enigma

noun
enig·ma | \ i-ˈnig-mə , 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

The reasons behind the sarin gas attack remain an enigma. Washington Post, "Cult leader executed for Japan sarin attacks still a mystery," 6 July 2018 This movie, directed by Ben Lewin from a Robert Rodat script (one adapted from Nicholas Dawidoff’s fascinating 1994 biography of Berg), relishes Berg’s compulsion to remain an enigma even to those closest to him. Robert Rodat, New York Times, "Review: ‘The Catcher Was a Spy’ Shares a Peculiar History Lesson," 21 June 2018 Even some of Trump's doubters carry shards of hope, and a bit of wonderment, that his unconventional diplomacy may crack the North Korean enigma and produce a meaningful deal to cut if not eliminate the nuclear threat. Anchorage Daily News, "Trump says there's no need for extensive preparation before the summit with Kim Jong Un," 10 June 2018 Yet the new 75-year-old leader, known as the Crocodile, remains an enigma (see article). The Economist, "The crocodile swims in murky watersZimbabwe’s new president says he is a democrat. Is he?," 1 Mar. 2018 Tampa Bay Buccaneers Jameis Winston is still an enigma. SI.com, "Fantasy Football Preseason Reports: A Scout’s Take on Every Team," 5 July 2018 The enigma begins with the Trumps’ unusual relationship. Molly Ball, Time, "Melania Trump Is Redefining One of the World’s Weirdest Jobs," 28 June 2018 Catherine Middleton, the mother of three from Reading, is an enigma. Tara Isabella Burton, Vox, "What the difference between Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle says about how we conceive of the “ideal woman”," 18 May 2018 From the opening segment of this season’s Dissect, Cuchna approaches the enigma of Frank Ocean with curiosity and reverence. Hannah Giorgis, The Atlantic, "Is It Futile to 'Dissect' Frank Ocean's Work?," 17 May 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

26 Aug 2018

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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

enigma

noun

English Language Learners Definition of enigma

: someone or something that is difficult to understand or explain

enigma

noun
enig·ma | \ i-ˈnig-mə \

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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