The Conundrum Conundrum
Last week I attended a talk here at Sussex by Andrew Liddle who came back from Edinburgh especially fro the event (and not at all in order to attend the Astronomy Centre Christmas Party, coincidentally later the same day). When he circulated the details of his talk, the title he gave was Cosmological Conundrums. Not being at all pedantic I naturally suggested that it should be Cosmological Conundra. Somewhat to my surprise he made that correction on the title slide of his talk. Later on, at the dinner, colleagues of mine argued that conundrum isn’t a Latin word so shouldn’t have a Latin plural; in much the same way that the plural of “bum” is not “ba”.
Actually the origin of the word “conundrum” is a bit of a puzzle in its own right. For one thing it certainly isn’t a word having an origin in Latin; the trusty Oxford English Dictionary says “Origin Lost” and Chambers says “Etymology Unknown”. Interestingly there are many variant spellings (such as quonundrum and quadundrum) and no less than 5 different definitions, given here in order of first recorded occurrence in written English (the first in 1596).
1. Applied abusively to a person. (? Pedant, crotchet-monger, or ninny.)
2. A whim, crotchet, maggot, conceit
3. A pun or word-play depending on similarity of sound in words of different meaning.
4. a. A riddle in the form of a question the answer to which involves a pun or play on words: called in 1769 conundrumical question. b. Any puzzling question or problem; an enigmatical statement.
5. A thing that one is puzzled to name, a ‘what-d’ye-call-it’. rare.
It is 4b that represents the most common modern usage; that first came into English as late as 1790. The OED also argues quite strongly that 1 is not the first use in English and probably doesn’t convey the original meaning; it’s just the first example of the word having been found in a written document.
So does the fact that “conundrum” is not a Latin word mean that its plural should be “conundrums” rather than “conundra”?
Maybe. But probably not. The best theory the OED gives for its etymology is “originating in some university joke, or as a parody of some Latin term of the schools, which would agree with its unfixed form in 17–18th cent”. I would argue that if conundrum is a made-up word meant to imitate or parody a Latin term then it should in fact be treated in the same way when forming its plural. The last thing anyone wants is a half-hearted parody and, in any case, I’m sure that the students who coined the term would have used the appropriate plural form.
Anyway, in the course of this investigation I discovered the word “crotchet-monger”, which I simply must try to get into my next public lecture.Follow @telescoper