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What is an Enigma?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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An enigma is a puzzle, or something mysterious and difficult to explain. People often use the term to imply that the puzzle or problem is intellectual in nature, requiring the full force of someone's deductive ability to solve it. The term was borrowed as a name for a coding machine used in the Second World War; the Enigma machine relied on a complex series of steps and devices to make virtually unbreakable codes. The only way to solve them was to steal a machine and its codebook, since the codes it generated were so complex.

The term is derived from the Greek ainig, which means "to speak in riddles." Enigmas can take a wide range of forms, including puzzles, riddles, mysteries, secrets, ambiguities, conundrums, perplexities, and things which are simply inexplicable. They may also combine these elements, as Winston Churchill famously noted when he said that "Russia is a riddle wrapped inside a mystery inside an enigma."

Humans have a natural sense of curiosity, so puzzles are often a topic of intense interest, discussion, and debate before they are solved. Some famous historical enigmas have captivated the imagination of some of the greatest minds in the world, and continue to do so, as is the case with Fermat's last theorem in mathematics. Some people relish the intellectual challenge of such a mystery, as it allows them to prove their intellectual capabilities to themselves and others.

Some employers use puzzles in interviews or employment testing to determine whether employees are a good fit. These challenges may relate to the field the company works in, as might be the case with a software company that challenges applicants to find the flaw in a presented piece of code, or they might just be general intellectual challenges. The successful completion of a puzzle can indicate that an employee will be able to think creatively to solve problems, and the process that the applicant goes through can also be of interest to potential employers.

Someone who speaks in riddles may be called "enigmatic." Many examples of such individuals can be found in history and in literature, and these people are sometimes treated as great minds, since it is assumed that their brains simply work too quickly to allow normal individuals to comprehend them.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon956328 — On Jun 13, 2014

I find this quite confusing.

By anon338281 — On Jun 12, 2013

I have a "friend" who gives me a riddle to ponder during almost every conversation. He is a brilliant man, writer, musician, painter, etc. He does not tell me his riddles are riddles, but he also does not deny that he gives me riddles. I think that many people who use riddles in conversations are highly intelligent and think differently than the average person.

In my case, I also feel that this person uses riddles to be indirect when he either does not have a clear answer yet or feels to self-conscious to share it outright. Then the question becomes, what do I do or say if I actually figure out the riddle?

By ZsaZsa56 — On Oct 12, 2012

I have a friend who I would describe as enigmatic. He is very literary and he is always speaking abstractly, intentionally evading making a clear statement about anything. I feel like everything he says has the mysterious weight of the last line of a chapter.

Sometime this is thrilling and it is one of the reasons that we are friends. But other times it is maddening. Its like, give me a clear answer. Not all questions deserve an evasion. I can't imagine how exhausting it must be for him to keep up that dialogue in his head.

By chivebasil — On Oct 12, 2012

I feel like the word enigma gets overused. Sure, strange and mysterious things happen all the time. But that doesn't qualify them as enigmas.

Its kind of the same thing that happened to the word brilliant or genius. We are so quick these days to assign that distinction to things that really don't deserve it. Same with enigma. We should reserve that word for the truly extraordinary and unexplainable.

By DinoLeash — On Jan 13, 2011

@chrisinbama: There is something called the “Principia Discordia” which states that all things happen in fives, are multiples of five, divisible by five, or are somehow directed to the number 5. It is also called the “Law of Fives”.

23 Enigma is considered to be a corollary of the Law of Fives.

By dega2010 — On Jan 12, 2011

@chrisinbama: The term “23 enigma” refers to the belief that some people have regarding the actual number, 23. It is a belief that most events and/or incidents are directly connected to the number 23, a number related to 23, or some type of modification of the number 23.

A man by the name of William S. Burroughs is said to have been the first person to have those beliefs. Burroughs, supposedly, knew a Captain Clark in the 1960’s. Clark used to brag that he had been sailing for 23 years and never had any accidents. The story goes, that on the very day that Clark made that statement, his ship was involved in an accident which killed Clark and everyone else aboard the ship.

Here’s where the irony starts; while Burroughs was thinking about the tragic events that took place, he heard on the radio that there was an airplane crash in Florida. The pilot’s name was Captain Clark and the flight number was 23.

By chrisinbama — On Jan 11, 2011

Has anyone ever heard of "23 Enigma"? If so, what does it mean?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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