Wednesday, 23 April 2014


From Snuff by Terry Pratchett:
'So Sybil's used to come along and talk to the hermit whenever they were faced with a philosophical conundrum, yes?” 
Willikins looked puzzled. “Good heavens, no, sir, I can't imagine at any of them would ever dream of doing that. They never had any truck with philosophical conundra.* They were aristocrats you see? Aristocrats don't notice philosophical conundra.” 
*Later on Vimes pondered Willikins’ accurate grasp of the plural noun in the circumstances, but there you were; if someone hung around in houses with lots of books in them, some of it rubbed off just as, come to think of it, it had on Vimes. 

But conundra isn't the plural of conundrum. It's not even Latin; the OED Online says

Etymology: Origin lost: in 1645 (sense 3) referred to as an Oxford term; possibly 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.
It's been pluralized conundrums, conimbrumsquinombromsConuncrumsQuadundrumsCunnunders, and conundrums, but hardly ever conundra.

A little later on there is a bit of "no words for X, lots of words for Y":

Do you know that they [goblins] have only five names for colours? Even trolls have around sixty, and a lot more than that if they find a paint salesman! Does this mean goblins are stupid?No, they have a vast number of names that even poets haven't come up with, for things like the way colours shift and change, the melting of one hue into another. They have single words for the most complicated of feelings; I know about two hundred of them, I think, and I'm sure there are a lot more! What you may think are grunts and growls and snarls are in fact carrying vast amounts of information! They're like an iceberg, commander: most of them is where you can't see or understand, and I'm teaching Tears of the Mushroom and some of her friends so that they may be able to speak to people like you, who think goblins are dumb.


Brian said...

Isn't the "um singular - a plural" thing Greek?

goofy said...

No, that's -on -a

vp said...

If the word's fake Latin, why not have a fake Latin plural?

Brian said...

Yes, but (and it's been 5 years since my last Greek class so I could be wrong) isn't there a huge number of Greek -on words that came into English as -um?

Faldone said...

Most, if not all, Greek -on words that came into English as -um did so through Latin and, in general, the Greek -on/-a corresponded to the Latin -um/-a.

Daibhid C said...

An anorak writes...

But that's in English. Morporkian has almost exactly the same words, but often completely different etymologies.

For instance, the word "complex" comes from the byzantine politics of the Komplezianne Empire, and "Pavlovian response" was named by a wizard called Boot who trained a dog to eat pavlova. (Where the word "pavlova" came from is not explained.)

So it's entirely possible that conundra is an authentic Latatian plural. It would admittedly be more certain if the difference was funny.

mahendra singh said...

Not only declension but usage of "conundrum" is often incorrect … to my knowledge, conundrum is a riddle in rhyme (or whatever verse form in use at the time).