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.

12 Responses to “The Conundrum Conundrum”

  1. Is Andrew’s talk, or some version of it, available somewhere?

  2. As usual the plural of an English word is determined by English usage: ‘conundrums’ wins in google-hits by more than an order of magnitude, and by a factor 4 in the BNC. Whatever the plural may have been when the word was invented, it’s ‘conundrums’ now.

    • So at least some people use “conundra”. By your argument that means that it is an acceptable variant.

      The word “gray” has an order of magnitude more Google hits than “grey”, but I maintain that the latter is the correct English spelling.

      I’m from the same family as Canute.

      • The BNC would agree with you on grey vs gray, of course, which is why I mentioned it. Since there’s no evidence here for a difference of usage with variety of English, I’d say that the data clearly say that the standard plural is ‘conundrums’. ‘conundra’ equally clearly exists as a variant: I don’t think my worldview gives me a means of deciding whether it’s ‘acceptable’!

      • Actually, Knut is the correct spelling. :-)

  3. What are these cosmological conundrums?

  4. Robert Kirshner Says:

    Where can I purchase the offerings of a crochet-monger? Perhaps in a Christmas market?

    • telescoper Says:

      Your comprehension is a bit woolly, I think: it’s “crotchet” not “crochet”. I think that’s important enough for me to take a minim or two to note, lest my readers start to quaver..

  5. I wonder whether there might be a connection with the Welsh word cyndynrwydd, meaning obstinacy, stubbornness or waywardness. I’ve no idea what are the origins of that word.

  6. Bryn Jones Says:

    Admittedly, the Uxbridge English Dictionary gives the definition of conundrum as “an ice cream wafer resting on a percussive musical instrument”.

  7. […] That business concluded it was back up to Falmer for a quick lunch and a meeting about undergraduate admissions. And finally, because it’s the last Friday of the month it was time this afternoon for our monthly MPS cake event. This month’s cake had a vaguely mathematical theme and also raised the issue of the correct plural of the word conundrum: […]

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