Nelson Muntz was once described as “an enigma wrapped in a riddle, wrapped in a vest.” An article in today’s Washington Post refers to the Trump White House as a “troubling enigma.” These are entertaining and memorable statements (and in the case of the second one, somewhat sad), but what exactly does the word enigma mean?
An enigma, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is:
A short composition in prose or verse, in which something is described by intentionally obscure metaphors, to afford an exercise for the ingenuity of the reader or hearer to guessing what it meant; a riddle. In a wider sense, an obscure or allusive speech; a parable.
Something as puzzling; an unsolved problem.
As for the word’s origin, enigma, says the Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, “comes via Latin from Greek ainigma ‘riddle,’ from ainissesthai, ‘speak allusively or obscurely,’ from ainos, ‘fable.'”
The Dictionary of Word Origins (Ayto) says the same thing, as does Origins, but the latter offers an interesting addition that makes the term and its use a little clearer. After providing an etymology similar to the above, it notes:
… to speak darkly, hence in riddles, from ainos, a fable or an allegory; perhaps comes from the Gothic inilo, a plea, or a reason, to be excused.
The addition of a word like “darkly,” is helpful given that, while enigma is equated with something puzzling or undecipherable, the word has always had a sinister tinge to it. (The use of the word “intentional” in the OED definition starts down this path, but doesn’t go far enough.) In fact, the sense of evil in the word is precisely why it’s so applicable to a character like Nelson Muntz, and why it is indeed so “troubling” to apply it to the current U.S. administration.
Sources: Dictionary of Word Origins Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English Oxford English Dictionary (compact edition) Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories
Note: I wrote this for another (now defunct) blog of mine before the election. I thought I’d resurrect it here as I contemplate the meaning of our would-be emperor’s recently issued ban on Muslims … and why anyone would vote for such an individual.
“Western society is based on Greco-Roman ideals of the person that can speak well, a rhetorical ideal. We have always been to some extent a society that favors action over contemplation. But this really reached a pitch when we moved from an agricultural society into the world of big business. And that’s when it really became the case that to stand out and succeed in a company, with people that you had never met before, the quality of being very magnetic, very charismatic in a job interview suddenly became very important. This happened at the turn of the 20th century.”
These words of introvert spokeswoman Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, appeared in the Guardian in 2012, in an interview paired with the headline, “Society Has a Cultural Bias Toward Extroverts.”
But is that true?
I believe it is and in support of my assertion, I point to Exhibit A: Mr. Donald J. Trump.
Think about it: Ever since he appeared on the political stage, political pundits have been trying (hard) to explain why this man, who has no political experience and not bothered to formulate any detailed policy initiatives, is so friggin’ popular. Oh, there are theories: he’s telling people (aka: the “silent majority”) what they want to hear; he’s capitalizing on white middle-class resentment and anger; he’s the epitome of a political outsider … so on and so forth.
But I think it just might have something to do with introversion and extroversion. Whereas Obama, the introvert, comes off as thoughtful, measured, and cool. Trump, the extrovert, is always at the ready to shoot his mouth off, fly off the handle, and get hot under the collar. And while such traits might be something the average person would be asked to “work on,” they seem to play to Trump’s advantage.
How can this be?
Well, as Cain notes in the Guardian interview, America no longer has much need for the “strong silent type.” I know, the interview took place in 2012, and no one thought about Trump back then. Nevertheless, given his shocking success in the primary [ and even more shocking success on election night] and his near omnipresence in the media, you’ve got to admit that Cain’s assessment is right on.
“There are these cultural demands for men to be very dominant. But there are roles for introverted men: the strong reserved man, the strong silent type. I think especially in the UK, there is more of a place for dignified reserve. The U.S. used to have a place for that, but we lost it!”
This brings us to President Obama, a politician famous for his dignified reserve he spawned a character: Key and Peele’s “Luther: Obama’s Anger Translator.” In addition, this past week, US News ran an op-ed by reporter Jamie Stiehm that asked, would Obama’s presidency have been different if he were extroverted?”
“What [Myers Briggs personality] type would Obama be? I think he’s an INTP [an acronym for I (introvert) N (intuition) T (thinking) P (perception)] …. I’ve often thought about how how Obama’s presidency would have turned out if his temperament was more outgoing and gregarious, like Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson or the aforementioned [Bill] Clinton. All were Democratic presidents who knew how to wheedle, bargain, glad-hand, joke, rib and horse-trade.”
Trump’s personality has been documented in in the pages of our nation’s periodicals as well and, as you might expect, he’s portrayed much differently than our current Commander-in-Chief. As psychologist Dan McAdams wrote in The Atlantic:
“Across his lifetime, Donald Trump has exhibited a trait profile that you would not expect of a U.S. president: sky-high extroversion combined with off-the-chart low agreeableness.
“Like George W. Bush and Bill Clinton (and Teddy Roosevelt, who tops the presidential extroversion list), Trump plays his role in an outgoing, exuberant, and socially dominant manner. He is a dynamo—driven, restless, unable to keep still.”
Did you catch the words McAdams used to describe the Donald in all his Trumpiness? “Outgoing,” “exuberant,” “dynamo,” “driven” … these words describe qualities to which most Americans aspire, particularly in the business world. In fact, this article from Inc.com on the “13 Traits of an Outstanding Salesman,” features many of the same or similar terms. Coincidence?
I know, the people who support Trump can probably cite countless reasons they prefer him to Hillary — and I’m willing to bet that his being an over-the-top extrovert wouldn’t be in the top 100. Nevertheless, there is no denying, as the website Greatest.com wrote (echoing Ms. Cain in the process) :
“The Western world places a premium on extroverted behaviors such as gregariousness, dominance, being comfortable in the spotlight, preferring action to contemplation, valuing certainty over doubt, and favoring quick decisions, even at the risk of being wrong.”
The morning after the election, I tweeted something along the lines of, “If there is a silver lining to the election of Donald Trump, it’s that it should inspire a lot of good punk rock and metal over the next four years.”
Little did I know that, in addition to these forthcoming musical gems, this knuckle head’s rise to power would also get the folks behind some of our lexicographical institutions all fired up!
This whole thing started last Sunday, when Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway told Chuck Todd of NBC that that Trump Press Secretary Shawn Spicer was offering “alternative facts” when he told reporters that, “[The crowd at Trump’s swearing-in] was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period.”
Not missing a beat, Merriam-Webster began making fun of the Trump administration through its Twitter feed, taking Conway to task for trying to sell “alternative facts” as, you know, a thing.
“A fact is a piece of information presented as having objective reality,” the dictionary company said in a tweet that linked to a Merriam-Webster posting about how look-ups for the word “fact” spiked after Conway’s comment.
As awesome as that initial ribbing was, the story continues to get better as Merriam-Webster has continued to school the Trump administration on its use of words … or at least it’s attempts to use them.
And so, for its continued efforts to educate our “president,” as well as for its success in making dictionaries cool again, we here at the ARLCP tip our hats to Merriam-Webster. Hence our decision to make this lexicographical kerfluffle our “News Item of the Week.”
For more on the dictionary’s revenge, see the following articles: