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Conundrum: A Cold Spoor Warmed Up

By Anatoly Liberman

No talk show about words and no word column can do without a question about conundrum. Since the label “of unknown origin” has stuck fast to it, the questions will never cease, and therein lies their main beauty. The Internet is abuzz with responses, but all of them say the same thing, for they repeat what is written in the OED, and the OED, apart from giving the forms and citations, says precious little on this point (“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.

Since conundrum ends in -um, people suspected a Latin etymon (source), but none has been found. For centuries, students have played with words to make them look like fruits of classical derivation, and some native-Greek-Latin puns resulted in brilliant hybrids. Engl. -um should be treated with caution. For example, tantrum has no Latin ancestor. It rather looks like dander (in to get one’s dander up), but dander is equally obscure, and there may be no connection between the two. Samuel Foote (1720-1777), a playwright and disturber of the peace, mocked Charles Macklin, his erstwhile fellow actor, who boasted that he could memorize any text after hearing it only once. He invented a string of rigmarole about cabbages and bears (as a matter of fact, there is only one she-bear in the piece), to test the man’s memory. In the story, a character called the great Panjandrum (a parody of Macklin) appears. If, pan-, as is usually assumed, means “all,” -jandrum is a nonsense pseudo-scholarly word, coined for the fun of it. Panjandrum stayed in the language and means “a pompous ass.” Cockalorum “a young whippersnapper” surfaced in the first half of the 18th century. Its humorous effect depended on the contrast between the domestic word cock, with its obscene connotations, and a Latin ending (just what is needed for naming a pretentious fool). In other cases, unconnected with -um, reminiscences of Latin grammar may also lead us astray. Quibble begins with qui-, and several Latin words immediately spring to mind. They may spring and jump as much as they wish, for quibble refuses to reveal its Latin past (is it related to quip, squabble, or cavil?). Gazebo looks like gaze with a Latin ending of the future but has nothing to do with it (I once devoted a special post to this word).

Although the seemingly rootless neologism conundrum appeared in English only at the end of the 16th century, it may have had a longer history. 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). Skeat’s predecessor and rival Hensleigh Wedgwood pointed to a Pembrokeshire word condrim “perplexity, confusion of mind, trouble” and compared it with Middle Engl. wandreme “tribulation” (it occurs only once in a poem, and its form and origin are dubious). The distance between condrim and conundrum may be hard to cover, but conundrum had so many variants (conimbrum, quinombrum, quonundrum, and quadundrum) that we cannot be sure which one was the oldest. Condrim are conimbrum sound similar. However, a regional word with minimal currency is hardly a promising etymon of conundrum, a word authors like Thomas Nashe and Ben Jonson did not disdain. The proliferation of variants can also be interpreted in many ways. Perhaps an individual coinage took London by storm. People laughed and repeated it, and it changed its shape from mouth to mouth. Or conundrum reached English from abroad, and Londoners were uncertain of its exact form. Or a dialectal word became suddenly fashionable in the capital, and no one knew its “correct” pronunciation. Conundrum “whim” precedes in text the meanings “pun,” “puzzle, riddle.” It was sometimes used in the tautological alliterative phrase crochets and conundrums (crochet “whim, fancy”).

Thus, both the form and the signification of conundrum were unstable. The circumstances in which it arose and gained popularity are said to be lost. We only know that it was later used at Oxford, which may indicate scholarly influence. 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. Words with such meanings tend to emerge from “the lower depths” and baffle etymologists. For example, quibble, whim, puzzle, and pun, all of which occur above, are of obscure origin..

Let us now look at what has been suggested about the etymology of conundrum during a century and a half of speculation. 1) Since conundrum means “pun” and presupposes an imaginary or fanciful agreement between some two objects, the etymon may be Greek koinon duoin (Latin commune duorum); substitute Latin duorum for Greek duoin, and you will get a good approximation of conundrum. 2) Perhaps conundrum is a modified and disguised form of Latin conventum “agreement.” For v the letter u often turns up in books. Conuentum could have been misunderstood and mispronounced as conundrum. (Both of these anonymous hypotheses were offered in 1859.) 3) See Wedgwood’s etymology above (1873). 4) In Ben Jonson’s days, conundrum could occasionally mean “false information, canard.” Skeat (in 1880 and never again) suggested that its source was perhaps Dutch kond rondom “known round about.” (This phrase is made up, but, in any case, conundrum is not a kind of word English would have borrowed from late Middle Dutch.) 5) In South India, so a correspondent to American Notes and Queries, names like Trivandrum and Chellumbrum occur. Could conundrum be of Tamil or Telugu origin? (Certainly not in 16th-century England.)

6) One of the citations in the OED runs as follows: “These conimbrums, whether Reall or Nominall, went down with Erasmus like chopt hay.” (1651; the first citation of conundrum goes back to 1586.) Here is the etymology, published in The Nation 57, 1893, No. 1481, p. 370 and signed by the initials C.S.P.: “There surely can be no doubt what this word [that is, conimbrums] is. The reference to realists and nominalists shows that something in the scholastic philosophy is referred to; and ‘conimbrum’ is easily recognized as meaning argumentum Conimbrienum. The doctors of Coimbra, in their celebrated commentaries published in the sixteenth century, have in all cases a great deal to say of the ‘multiplex significatio’ of one word and another. Indeed, such remarks are their great weapon. They used it for all it was worth, and a little more. Accordingly, a dealer in verbal quibbles might naturally have been called by Oxford students a Conimbricus, and his quillet Conimbrienum argumentum. The original c, which this hypothesis requires, is preserved in another old form of the word ‘conuncrum’. Conimbrica was in the sixteenth century the most usual Latin form of the name Coimbra, though Conimbria is also common. Colimbria was obsolete.” (This etymology would have been fully persuasive but for two snags: the fact that the earliest recorded and still remembered form is conundrum and the existence of so many variants of the word. But no theory will explain away that variety; it can only mention the circumstance that slang words often exist in multiple forms.)

7) Conundrum (with all its variants) and quandary belong to the family that goes back to French calembredaine “nonsense talk” and calembour “pun,” both allegedly traceable to Old French bourde “twaddle.” (Leo Spitzer, 1943 and several times later. The trouble is that the French words Spitzer cites appeared in texts only at the end of the 18th century, and their etymology remains a matter of debate. According to the main law of lexical reconstruction, a word of questionable origin cannot shed light on another opaque word. But note that Coimbra was at one time Latinized as Colimbra, and this form bears some resemblance to French calembour and German Kalauer, evidently, a borrowing of it.) 8) An Italian manuscript mentions a Medieval Latin name conandrum for a simple (that is, a medicinal herb) used against a headache. This word was presumably changed to conundrum and came to mean a riddle that causes headaches. (Johann Knobloch, 1984; far-fetched).

By way of conclusion, I will harp on my favorite note. The progress of etymology is hampered (and hampered fatally) by the absence of comprehensive bibliographies. Researchers either display unpardonable naiveté and start from scratch or pretend that they had no predecessors. Did Knobloch, a serious historical linguist, know Spitzer’s articles? If he did, he chose not to mention them. But who can expect anyone’s familiarity with a note in The Nation for 1893? I was lucky. While working on a new etymological dictionary of English, I sent my volunteers to comb through all the popular magazines of which I was aware. This is how C.S.P.’s letter to the editor ended up in my database. But it could have been missed, or The Nation may have fallen between the cracks (I got interested in it only because of the scholarly reviews it published and realized that the entire set requires my attention).

Do we know the origin of conundrum? We probably don’t, but I think Mr. C.S.P. came closer to solving the riddle (puzzle) than anybody else. He may also, even though unwittingly, have said an important thing about French calembour.


Anatoly_libermanAnatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to blog.us@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    C.S.P., the writer in The Nation, is evidently Charles Sanders Peirce.

  2. Stephen Goranson

    The Italian manuscript conandrum may be a copy error for coriandrum, coriander, sometimes prescribed for headache.

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