Saturday, June 8, 2013


Hugo, a sometime commenter here, asked a while ago whether instead of just posing conundrums I might explore the word itself. I thought it was a good idea, and, more importantly to the state of my life over the last six weeks or so, easy to resolve. Some kind of typical Latin to Old French to Anglo French route, most likely.

But it proved more complicated than that. In fact, I haven't had time to do justice to the task--until now.

Scene of one of the most famous conundrums of all*.

First off, let's define the word a little. There turn out to be two meanings. One is the one that most of us are familiar with--"a paradoxical, difficult or insoluble problem," according to the FreeDictionary. But the second meaning is a little more specific--a riddle that is answered by a pun. Or, as one commenter over on Wikipedia has it, "a riddle whose answer also turns out to be a riddle." Wikipedia also has this definition of riddles (although I actually found it on an interesting and very punny thread on Metafilter):

"A riddle is a statement or question or phrase having a double or veiled meaning, put forth as a puzzle to be solved. Riddles are of two types: enigmas, which are problems generally expressed in metaphorical or allegorical language that require ingenuity and careful thinking for their solution, and conundrums, which are questions relying for their effects on punning in either the question or the answer."

As for its origins. Well. The Online Etymology Dictionary sides with most other sources in saying that it is first seen in print in 1590 out of Oxford University and was slang for pedant but also whim. It gradually acquired the meaning of riddle or puzzle, but doesn't show up in print in this form till 1790. It took many forms before solidifying into the word we know now:conibrum, conuncrum, quonumdrum, connunder... and so on. The Online Etymology has an uncharacteristically pointed comment: "The sort of ponderous pseudo-Latin word that was once the height of humor in learned circles."

Yes--too bad those days are past...

But I promised a mention of my favorite etymologist soon, and here it is. Anatoly Liberman has a long article on Conundrum: a Cold Spoor Warmed Up, where he perhaps despairs a little of the type of quest involved here, in which all roads lead to the Oxford English Dictionary, which tells us only that "the origin is lost". 

"It may therefore be worthwhile to glance at the state of the art, the more so because our chase for the answer will not necessarily end in a confession of ignorance."

(Although, ironically and unbeknownst to him, it does--this one.)

I should have known from my own searching that that "-um" ending doesn't necessarily make it Latin.  In fact, I looked into the very word he mentions--tantrum--some time ago.

Liberman reminds us, too, that just  that this "rootless neologism" only appears at the end of the 16th century, that doesn't mean it doesn't go back a lot further.

"At that time, rather many words made it to the Standard from dialects (first to London slang and then to the language of the educated class)." He goes on to remind us that 'A word’s earliest recorded meaning and a word’s initial meaning are not synonyms; in our documentation, a great deal depends on chance. Conundrum “whim” and “pun; puzzle; quibble” may have coexisted from the start.' " 

Check out his article. You will find a survey of many ingenious etymologies--most of them necessarily wrong.

And there you have it. Oh, and if you like the idea of solving conundrums, both the punny kind and the puzzle kind, here is list of some increasing order of difficulty.

 *Why is a raven like a writing desk? 

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