While listening to a Barenaked Ladies song the other day (in which they sing something about “an enigma wrapped in a mystery”), the word enigmaramus came to me (its first four syllables are already there). I imagined it as describing someone who’s so stupid you can’t even fathom their stupidity. It’s really just a sort of contraction to form a superlative of idiot. I was proud of myself for this discovery (since it wasn’t really an invention), but I also wondered if others before me might have discovered the same word. In the days of The Beatles and “Scrambled Eggs,” Paul McCartney had to survey music store owners to see if his tune was already written by someone else, but in these times, all I had to do was ask the Internet.

I realize that the word could be spelled enigmaramus or enigmoramus, and I checked both ways. The only mention I found of either version was a PDF document listing the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s collection of Neuropterida (insects commonly known as Lacewings, Antlions, and Owlflies). One of their specimens is called Adelphohemerobius enigmaramus, and it lists the following information: OSWALD, 1994; Chile. It falls under the Family Hemerobiidae, under the heading “Neuroptera,” which may be the order, I dunno. It’s hard to find much on the notations, but I am deducing that Oswald is the discoverer of the lacewing (it turns out Hemerobiidae are lacewings). I could find no further information on this particular bug, I’ve tracked down Dr. Oswald to ask about the reasons behind the name. I’ll let you know.

Meanwhile, feel free to use the word enigmaramus whenever you’re so flustered by someone’s stupidity you don’t know what to do (or say).

PatrickWords01/01/04 2 comments


Patrick • 01/02/04 12:09 PM:

I got a reply from Dr. Oswald. Very nice fellow. Here’s what he says:

I share your interest in etymology and language—some things that I derived from my father who was an avid crossword puzzler. The etymology of Adelphohemerobius enigmaramus is fairly straightforward from classical roots:

Adelphohemerobius: Adelpho- (Gr. adelphe, sister) + -hemerobius (Hemerobius, a hemerobiid genus-group name), in reference to the position of its type species as the cladistic sister-group to all other extant hemerobiids known at the time of its description.

enigmaramus: enigma- (L. aenigma, a riddle or something obscure) + -ramus (L. ramus, branch), in reference to the form of the forewing radial vein, which is unique among extant hemerobiids in having only one (not several) wing-vein branches arising obliquely from the R1 vein. This character was particularly puzzling to me when I first encountered it because the presence of >1 oblique branches from the R1 had been considered as the primary “family-level” character of the insect family Hemerobiidae for the past 50-100 years.

Incidentally, this scientific name tries to follow the “classical” pattern of scientific names (perhaps not much adhered to these days…) of a Greek-derived generic name and a Latin-derived species name. I’m a biologist, not an English major, so I don’t know if my compounding and coinage would follow all the forms of the ancients (e.g., elision, connecting vowels, etc.), but I try…

Isn’t the Internet great? In spite of its problems and misuses (spam, smut, and other four-letter s-words), it allows total strangers to connect, even briefly, in interesting ways, like this.

Dad • 04/01/07 2:15 PM:

I think it’s interesting that ignoramus, which has come to mean an extremely ignorant person, is Latin for “we do not know” and has been used as the grand jury verdict when they determine there is insufficient evidence to indict. So the “ramus” part of the word is merely an ending that changes the word ignorare to the plural “first person present indicative.” Technically, enigmaramus ought to mean “we are puzzled.”

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