Words of Mystery and Bewilderment


Quagmires have been confounding people since the mid-1500s. Originally this term referred to an area of boggy ground, the kind of ground you sink into as you trudge on through it. Shortly thereafter its meaning extended to include any situation from which extrication is very difficult. The standalone term quag came to English slightly after quagmire. Though the origin of quagmire is unknown, etymologists compare the term to the earlier regional British terms quab and quaw, which both refer to boggy land.


The development of the term morass follows the logic of quagmire, though, in this case, it took much more time for these dots of meaning to be connected. Morass first entered English in the late 1400s from the Dutch word for “marsh.” The figurative sense of “any confusing or troublesome situation, especially one from which it is difficult to free oneself” took hundreds of years to emerge, surfacing in the 1860s.


When enigma first entered English in the 1500s it referred to a riddle, filled with cloudy language, just waiting to be untangled by an active mind. It could also refer to a saying or parable with a hidden meaning. By the 1600s, it took on the figurative meaning of a puzzling or inexplicable occurrence or situation. This term finds its roots in the Greek term ainíssesthai meaning “to speak in riddles,” a derivative of aînos meaning “fable.” Appropriately, the enciphering machine used by German and other Axis powers for military use through World World II was called Enigma.


The term pickle has soaked up many senses since its introduction to English in the mid-1400s. At first pickle referred to a sauce or liquid used to preserve food. People have been in a pickle or “a troublesome or awkward situation” since the late 1500s. This was soon followed by another figurative sense which often applies to memories preserved as if by a time capsule. The common sense of “a cucumber preserved in brine” entered English in the mid-1600s.


Labyrinth entered popular English usage in the 1500s as a reference to Greek mythology. In Crete, the maze of lore housed the Minotaur, a dangerous monster with the head of a bull and the body of a man, who feasted on human flesh. Labyrinth came to mean “any confusingly intricate state of things or events; a bewildering complex” in the mid-1500s. Flesh-eating monsters aside, some labyrinths can be fun. Many parks and gardens sport mazes grown from hedges, which people navigate for their own amusement, and there’s also the 1986 film starring David Bowie as the Goblin King. Both of these, of course, are more fun than encountering an actual Minotaur or a befuddling situation.


The origin of conundrum is a mystery, though it is likely is a pseudo-Latin term made up by university students in the UK in the late 1500s. At first it referred pejoratively to a person, though by the mid-1600s, it picked up the sense “a riddle, the answer to which involves a pun or play on words.” Later its meaning further widened to include anything that puzzles, a sense still popularly used today.


The origin of quandary is similar to conundrum in that it is likely a pseudo-Latin term, coined by students for laughs. It is possible that the Latin quando meaning “when” inspired the inventors of this term. Though the origin is uncertain, quandary started popping up in English in the 1500s to refer to “a state of perplexity or uncertainty, especially as to what to do.”


Imbroglio comes to English from the Italian word imbrogliare meaning “to embroil, confuse or tangle.” In the mid-1700s, this term referred to a confused heap, though by the early 1800s, it took on the additional sense of “an intricate and perplexing state of affairs; a complicated or difficult situation.” Imbroglio can be beautiful, though. This term is sometimes applied to music in which parts play against each other resulting in a sound that embodies an orderly chaos.

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