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 Regardless of what future research reveals, the Neanderthal mind is likely to remain an enigma. Adrian Woolfson, WSJ, "‘Kindred’ Review: Our Neanderthal Cousins," 2 Oct. 2020 This enigma of what sensory scientists call oral referral has to do with the coupling of smell with the motor system. Ann-sophie Barwich, STAT, "Going viral: What Covid-19-related loss of smell reveals about how the mind works," 14 Aug. 2020 The abrupt departure of California’s top public health officer Sunday came as a shock to many local leaders at the front lines of the state’s pandemic response, who described Dr. Sonia Angell as helpful but a bit of an enigma. Chronicle Staff, SFChronicle.com, "Coronavirus news from the Bay Area: August 9-10," 12 Aug. 2020 The campaign for West, which has expressed support for Republican President Donald Trump, is something of an enigma. cleveland, "Kanye West files petitions to appear on presidential ballot in Ohio," 5 Aug. 2020 Another big-picture enigma: If moving the start of the season to a later date is the best COVID-19 strategy, how does that square with the same motive prompting academic calendars to move up to an earlier start and finish? Eric Hansen, The Indianapolis Star, "No Big Ten? No problem. ACC has Notre Dame football scheduling issues covered," 10 July 2020 The Imperial County coronavirus tally is a bit of an enigma. Kristi Sturgill, Los Angeles Times, "Its two hospitals overrun, Imperial County halts in-store retail and indoor religious services," 2 July 2020 In the century since the Spanish flu gripped the globe, the extent of the disease’s economic destruction remains an enigma. Robert Hackett, Fortune, "Why economists, hedge funds, and health officials are using this startup’s data to understand the pandemic," 15 June 2020 Topics include the enigma of why inflation remains low, possible changes to the price-stability goal, and issues that some see as a potential distraction such as climate change and digital currencies. Paul Gordon, Bloomberg.com, "Lagarde Urges ECB Silence on Strategy Review Before Announcement," 5 May 2020

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 Oct 2020

Cite this Entry

“Enigma.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/enigma. Accessed 24 Nov. 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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