conundrum

Ah, the sound of distant thunder: conundrum. “I hear her heart’s beating, loud as thunder / saw they stars crashing down.” Oh, love that David Bowie – “Sound of thunder, sound of gold, sound of the devil breaking parole.” But what does that mean? From another quarter another rumble mumbles:

A bridge a very small bridge in a location and thunder, any thunder, this is the capture of reversible sizing and more indeed more can be cautious.

Perhaps this will clarify:

If comparing a piece that is a size that is recognised as not a size but a piece, comparing a piece with what is not recognised but what is used as it is held by holding, comparing these two comes to be repeated.

Ah, well, sigh…

Lying in a conundrum, lying so makes the springs restless, lying so is a reduction, not lying so is arrangeable.

Conundrum: a numbing rumble, like a stone. A stone? A Stein, Gertrude! These things we learn, or unlearn, from “Rooms,” a long piece by Stein from Tender Buttons.

Oo, tender buttons? Like the little round button at the top? No, that was another drum: “And there were present the Picninnies, and the Joblillies, and the Garyulies, and the Grand Panjandrum himself, with the little round button at top.” This nonsense is the origin of Grand Panjandrum, which has one thing in common with conundrum: it is a fanciful pseudo-Latin confection.

Yes, indeed. The exact origin of conundrum is itself something of an unanswerable conundrum (making it a word, like pentasyllabic, that describes itself), but if you notice that it has the rim-shot rhythm of the punctuated punchline, “badum-bum,” well, that’s because the joke is on you. Once upon a time (a few centuries ago) the Oxford set and their ilk found faux-Latin words terribly amusing, because amusingly terrible. This is one of those. (If you were to write the word in Gothic script, you would be faced with an even better conundrum, as the n‘s and u‘s and m would all be written with series of similar crooked vertical strokes, hardly easier to read than cossssssdrsssss.)

This word in particular, now generally used as a synonym for enigma or dilemma, originally referred to a fanciful conceit (meaning that even then it described itself); from that it came to refer to a kind of play on words, as we see from this 1645 quotation: “This is the man who would have his device alwayes in his sermons, which in Oxford they then called conundrums. For an instance..Now all House is turned into an Alehouse, and a pair of dice is made a Paradice, was it thus in the days of Noah? Ah no!” From that it came to refer to a riddle the answer to which involved wordplay: “What is black and white and red (read) all over? A newspaper.”

And now, its fanciful nature forgotten, it is collocated with real, old, age-old, ancient, and philosophical, and is very often followed by a colon, as in this 2009 quotation from Sports Illustrated: “It is the age-old conundrum: the integrity of the sport versus the teeth-gritting ticket rain check.” Oh, that age-old conundrum! Didn’t they mention that in the Bible? Ah, heh… clearly this word is in decline, at least when it comes to fun. O bang the conundrum slowly!

Thanks to Marie-Lynn Hammond for suggesting conundrum.

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