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shameless pleading






Unscrewing the inscrutable.

Dear Word Detective: I’ve got quite the “conundrum” for you. What is the origin of this very obscure word? It has at least three synonyms that I know of (riddle, puzzle, enigma), so I don’t imagine it’s the first of these four to mean what it means. The online dictionary explained its meaning quite well, but nothing about its origin, and a search simply yielded countless “conundrums” that other people had. Please help. — Neil, Vancouver, BC, Canada.

Hey, you’re right. Googling “conundrum” produces 5,510,000 hits, and not a single one of them explains the origin of the word. I had to check each link, of course, because I wouldn’t be able to sleep if I didn’t follow every clue. Anybody know a good ophthalmologist? By the way, speaking of puzzles, I’m not sure I understand the second sentence of your question, so we’ll just skip that part.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines “conundrum” as “a paradoxical, insoluble, or difficult problem; a dilemma,” which covers a lot of ground. In any case, “conundrums” are generally not good things. A choice between your two favorite flavors of ice cream is not a conundrum; a choice between paying your rent or buying food is a conundrum. But it’s difficult to imagine remembering to use the word “conundrum” in such a dire situation, because “conundrum” is the sort of fancy locution, like the word “eschew,” that I seriously doubt anyone uses without careful forethought. Real people generally don’t say “conundrum.” They say “jam” or “pickle.”

Ask the folks at Oxford English Dictionary for the etymology of “conundrum,” and the answer is a terse “Origin lost,” as if it had been misplaced in a word warehouse on the outskirts of the city. The truth is more likely “origin never exactly known.” The most reasonable theory is that “conundrum” originated as a joke among university students in 16th century England, probably concocted as a pseudo-Latin nonsense word and initially used as a derogatory term for a fussy, pedantic and silly person (what the Oxford dictionary calls a “crotchet-monger”). Over the next two hundred years, “conundrum” was used to mean “a whim or silly idea” and “a pun” before it took on the sense of “a riddle the answer to which is a pun” in the late 18th century, and, soon thereafter, acquired its modern sense of “an insoluble or very difficult problem.” So the answer, unsatisfying as it may be, is that the birthplace of “conundrum” was probably just the warped imagination of a 16th century college student.

14 comments to Conundrum

  • marielle jansen

    there is a place in the UK called Conundrum. It seems to me that the word must be related to some historical event happening in that place.

    • recently I found that during ww2, great spools of flexible tubing were used under the English channel to fuel the landing parties success of momentum. These great spools of tubbing were known as conundrums. Of course the word is much older but…

  • Roland

    It could be of Celtic origin as in Connelly: From the Irish Ó Conghaile, which means “the descendent of the valorous,” so it could from the drum of Connelly or “the drum of the valorous,” which could have been a mystery or some sort of conundrum. What say ye?

  • Stuart

    The word as a place name may also have a Gaelic conotation: conon appears in several Scottish place names, as “meeting place” (e.g. Strathconon, Cononish). drum or druim is even more common, meaning “ridge”. The Gaelic also makes sense, of course, “meeting place of the ridges”.

    Getting from there to the current meaning is another matter. The place Conundrum is a farm NW of Berwick: perhaps it was the first strangely-Scottish place name English people encountered, and so by extension it passed into general usage as meaning a mystery.

  • Hannah

    If you think of “the answer to a puzzle that is a pun,” as two sharp minds meeting at a point of intellectual valor, then “the meeting point of two ridges” has a very symbolic connection to the former definition!
    Ridges do not generally “meet,” and when they do it is at quite a sharp angle; thus, two sharp minds coming together could be seen as the meeting of two ridges. When this happens in a comical manner, such as puns, it makes sense that one would need an equally comical way of describing it- hence, conundrum.

  • Paul Cappadona

    Conundrom: When deciding to do something you take into consideration all you do know and try to consider what you don’t no but it’s the part about what you don’t know what you don’t know that creates the conundrum.

  • radosch

    a road chockfull of them cones

  • hello world!

    ASAIK, there are two possible etymologies for ‘Conundrum’ listed as follow:
    1. Conundrum < E con "tricky" + Germ und "and" + E rum "strange"

    2. Conundrum < L com- “with” + OE wundor- “wonder” + L -um "noun suffix"

    Thanks for any comments!

  • Useful word nut

    I seem to recall a clip on the history channel a few years back explaining that the term “Conundrum” came from petrol drums (in the range of 250,000gal) that were floated across the English channel surfing WW2 to supply allied troops in their assault on Nazi German . It seems feasible since they were most likely using wooden barrels which would leak over time, possibly break and cause general issues. As one intelligent person deduced, a “con” is adverse to ones intentions, “nun”, I have no clue how this was incorporated, and “drum”, well, that’s fairly self explanatory. Conundrum: Undesired situation, predicament, dilemma. Or in simpler terms, Jam, pickle, problem.

    That’s just my 2¢, though.

  • Mandy

    Dundrum is a historical village near Dublin Ireland surrounding Dundrum castle and was built as outer fortifications around the 13th century. Later in 1590, a newer castle was built by Richard Fitzwilliam as part of a strategic line of castles within the Pale. The original village clustered around Dundrum Castle and was considered a rural defensive outpost against assaults and raids from Irish tribes and families. It was a place of military importance, an opposing force that was hard to overcome.

  • Mandy

    The idea of counties as opposed to Shires was first introduced to Ireland following the Anglo-Norman invasion in the twelfth century and shortened to Co before the name. Co Dundrum could have easily become conundrum like most words changing slightly passing through word of mouth and accents.

  • “Sleep is a suspension midway
    and a conundrum of shadows” (Carl Sandburg,”The People Speak”). Conundrum–a word Sandburg used in more than one poem (wish I could find the others which I remember more fondly). It is the mystery between differences that seem irreconcilable, which despite our best efforts to solve, brings us back to the state of unknowing. This is the place between war and peace, wealth and poverty, faith and fear, etc. Carl Sandburg seemed to be the poet of the Conundrum. His is perhaps the best modern usage of the word.

  • I have very simple, hopefully all inclusive: Conundrum…No matter what the issue, there are several right answers, always enticing, depending on your open mind; however mostly opposite or alluringly close. Perhaps this answer is a conundrum in its simplicity.

  • Anonymous

    it is a scottish word used by the english to describe the witful scots. that why its not recorded, cause we all know, the keeper of the books wont acknowledge the outside languages they deemed dead and in fact outlawed.

    but we know. x

    language is a an ever changing gift

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