“It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key.” Winston Churchill, radio broadcast in October 1939
I write mysteries, yet one word we shy away from in a mystery story is the word, mystery, itself. The genre has kidnapped that term. It’s primary definition of being something that is difficult or impossible to explain has been hijacked by the secondary meaning: a novel, play, or movie dealing with a puzzling crime, especially murder.
When I write “It’s a mystery”, am I saying something is a puzzle or conundrum, or do I refer to the book lying on the table? Best to avoid the confusion altogether, especially since there are so many alternatives to play with instead.
1. Riddle: Who doesn’t think of Batman’s Riddler when this word comes up? Either that or your Uncle Henry telling jokes at the family Christmas party.
“Riddle me this, riddle me that, who's afraid of the big, black bat?” —The Riddler, Batman Forever (1995)
2. Charade: Like masquerade, charade evokes thoughts of masks, then masked balls, then crazy partys in the 18th century.
“I think the worst time to have a heart attack is during a game of charades.” ― Demetri Martin
3. Anomaly: I like the word, anomaly. It makes me think of Star Trek and all the anomalies that keep our imagination brimming with aliens and things that go bump in space, but that’s only part of the story.
"Writing is, in the end, that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” ― Pico Iyer
“It's in the anomalies that nature reveals its secrets.” ― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
4. Quandary: Your grandmother’s quandary was whether to feed the chickens or wash the pig.
“My great quandary was what coat to wear and which books to bring.” ― Patti Smith, M Train
“It appears that God has deliberately left us in a quandary about many things.” ― Elisabeth Elliot
5. Puzzle: Puzzle, to me, is something tangible, like a jigsaw puzzle. One piece missing and you’re lost.
"Who in the world am I? Ah, that's the great puzzle.” ― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
6. Secret: Everybody’s got one.
“Good books don't give up all their secrets at once.” ― Stephen King
“All the secrets of the world are contained in books. Read at your own risk.” ― Lemony Snicket
7. Conundrum: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there "is" such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.” ― Martin Luther King Jr.
8. Enigma: “Watching a coast as it slips by the ship is like thinking about an enigma. There it is before you, smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid, or savage, and always mute with an air of whispering, ‘Come and find out’.” ― Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
9. Paradox: Gilbert & Sullivan wrote a song about one:
“How quaint the ways of Paradox! At common sense she gaily mocks!” — Gilbert and Sullivan, The Pirates of Penzance
Here are a few more examples:
“Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.” ― Rita Mae Brown, Alma Mater
“Procrastinate now, don't put it off.” ― Ellen DeGeneres
“In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” ― Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere's Fan
“I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.” ― Plato, The Republic
10. Arcanum: I chose this word because it sounded mysterious, and outside of the tarot, I’d never heard it before. Arcanum is defined as: 1. a secret accessible only to the few; specialized knowledge or details unknown to or misunderstood by the average person. 2. (Alchemy) a secret of nature sought by alchemists such as an essence or remedy; an elixir. It is also a role-playing game.
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