Enigmas, Puzzles, and Riddles

By Maeve Maddox

On the day of the Iowa Caucus, pollster Ann Selzer made the following comment about Donald Trump:

He’s just this riddle inside a puzzle.

I immediately thought of Winston Churchill’s oft-repeated comment about Russia at the beginning of World War II:

a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

I couldn’t help wondering if Ms. Selzer chose the word puzzle because she felt that the general American public in 2016 were less likely to understand the word enigma than a general British public in 1939.

But, I’m probably being uncharitable. Puzzle is a valid synonym for enigma, although not nearly as classy.

Enigma is from Latin aenigma, “a riddle or a mystery.” The Latin noun is from a Greek verb meaning, “to speak allusively or obscurely.”

Riddle is a word inherited from German. In Old English, riddle was the usual English translation of Latin aenigma and referred to what modern speakers, especially children, mean by riddle: “a question or statement intentionally phrased to require ingenuity in ascertaining its answer or meaning. For example, “How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?”

Puzzle is of unknown origin. Its earliest English use was as a verb meaning, “to cause a person to be at a loss what to do; to create difficulties for someone.” The verb came to have several meanings, including these:

to cause someone to feel confused because they cannot understand something.
to perplex or bewilder the brain.
to be at a loss how to act or decide
to search in a bewildered or perplexed way

The noun puzzle is derived from the verb and means “a perplexing question or a difficult problem.” It can also signify “a person who is difficult to understand.”

Note: Selzer’s remark referred not so much to the man, but to his apparently inexplicable popularity with “moderate and mainstream” Republicans as well as with extremists.

English has numerous words to convey something that is baffling or mentally challenging. Here are some others:


Most are near synonyms. All imply something baffling or challenging, but they carry different connotations.

A mystery invites speculation. A conundrum, like a riddle, is often phrased as a question. The answer usually involves a play on words or a twist in thinking. For example:

What is greater than God,
more evil than the devil,
the poor have it,
the rich need it,
and if you eat it, you’ll die?
(Answer: Nothing)

A paradox seems absurd, but in reality expresses a certain truth. For example, “Youth is wasted on the young.”

A quandary is a state of extreme perplexity. A person or a group is said to be “in a quandary,” as in this headline from The Gaffney Ledger: “Council still in a quandary over healthcare insurance.”

Of the three words in the title of this post, puzzle is most frequent in a Google search (296,000,000), riddle next (140,200,000), and enigma last (64,400,000). The figure for enigma is no doubt inflated because of the popularity of the word in the entertainment industry. References to the German “enigma machine” probably also account for some of the results.

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1 Response to “Enigmas, Puzzles, and Riddles”

  • venqax

    Interesting as usual. When did puzzle come to be applied to the pieces-to-make-a-picture thingamajig?

    Also we have “dilemma”, which is limited to 2 bad choices, and the similar “Catch 22” which is almost always misused.

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