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

Despite the disclosures, an enigma hangs over the aide who signed onto Macron's security detail during his presidential campaign and rose quickly to his inner circle. Elaine Ganley, Fox News, "Car, gun, money: Scandal over Macron's ex-aide grips France," 1 Aug. 2018 Maybe more Processing makes better sense, since Simmons can’t shoot and Fultz is an enigma and Brown didn’t exactly recall the genius of Red Auerbach against the Celtics. Marcus Hayes, Philly.com, "Brett Brown is ignoring the Sixers' company line on recruiting a free agent like LeBron James | Marcus Hayes," 28 May 2018 The 2017 Only in Cleveland Moment of the Year was a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigmaCLEVELAND, Ohio - During the course of a calendar year, there are moments in Cleveland sports, and then there are moments that are Cleveland sports. Dan Labbe, cleveland.com, "Projecting the Browns' starting lineup on defense," 17 Jan. 2018 His characterisation is adept, from Reid, the slave-owner who loses his property and his daughter Emily to his ambitious, sadistic neighbour Levallois, to the enigma of Emily herself. The Economist, "Kevin Powers has written a harrowing, resonant civil war novel," 6 June 2018 Maybe the biggest enigma of the 2018 summer, Ilya Kovalchuk has asserted his want to return to the NHL after spending the last five seasons dominating in the KHL with SKA St. Petersburg. Michael Blinn, SI.com, "John Tavares the Biggest Name in a Thin 2018 NHL Free Agent Market," 5 June 2018 North Korea remains an enigma to Western spy agencies. Matt Stiles, latimes.com, "After Trump agrees to meet its leader, North Korea goes silent, raising questions about a summit," 17 Mar. 2018 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

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

18 Nov 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



English Language Learners Definition of enigma

: someone or something that is difficult to understand or explain


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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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).


by force of circumstances

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