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conundrum

Printable Version Pronunciation: kê-nên-drêm Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: 1. A riddle with a pun for an answer. 2. A dilemma, an enigma, a problem with no perceptible solution or exit.

Notes: Various wags have extended today's word as a verb (conundrumize) and as an adjective (conundrumical) but no one takes these words seriously. If you are in a playful situation you might try launching one but we recommend avoiding the use of them in job applications. The plural, everyone agrees, is conundrums, NOT conundra—unless, of course, you are a wag yourself.

In Play: The meaning that has followed this word for the longest period is "a punning riddle", like the old two-liner every music student knows: "What is the question to which '9W' is the answer?" The answer is, "Do you spell your name with a V, Herr Wagner?" (Remember the German word for "no"?) Today, however, conundrums are generally taken to be intractable problems like this one: "The conundrum facing Phil Anders is that he proposed to two women expecting that one would turn him down but both accepted."

Word History: Today's Good Word arose in the late 16th century at Oxford University. Its original meaning is hazy but this apparently was a concocted nonce word meaning "pompous, boringly pedantic". It was also spelled quonundrum in its youth, the sort of parody of a Latin word considered jolly good humor in learned circles of the time. Its last two syllables, therefore, are probably a homage to humdrum. By 1790 the word referred to a riddle, particularly a difficult one with a built-in pun, such as the example given above. After that it was but a hop, skip, and jump to its current meaning, "an intractable problem". (The name of the person suggesting today's Good Word poses no conundrum; it was Stan Davis of Lakewood, Colorado.)

Dr. Goodword, alphaDictionary.com

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