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When you say:

His motive (for the crime he committed) remained a mystery.

It doesn't sound the same if you change "a mystery" to "mysterious" as if the two words didn't have the same meaning. Please correct me if I am wrong.

Another example is:

‘I quickly went over to the desk and starting sifting through the papers, looking for a clue to the identity of our mystery guest.’

If you Google search them, you have 718,000 hits for "mystery guest" and 142,000 for "mysterious guest". I assume there has to be a reason for that.

‘A mysterious benefactor provided the money’

In the above example, it sounds like it is OK to use "mystery" in place of "mysterious" (personal opinion). However, you get only 17,000 hits for "mystery benefactor" and 135,000 hits for "mysterious benefactor", which is 8 times more. The usage of "mysterious benefactor" seems quite differnt from "mystery guest".

[Oxford Online Dictionary]

Questions:

  1. In the first example, "a mystery" looks like it is functioning as an adjective with a different connotation from "mysterious". Is it impossible to say "His motive remained mysterious"? Is it just idiomatic (just the way it is)?

  2. In the second and third examples, what happens if I use "mysterious" in place of "a mystery" or vice versa? Why do you think there is such a big difference in Google hits?

Please don't asnwer with "that's the way it is".

Thank you.

  • All right, I'll just comment with it: That's the way it is. Just because two words are etymologically related does not mean that their meanings remain coupled together. – Colin Fine Nov 5 '15 at 15:59
  • @ColinFine I always enjoy reading your to-the-point answers to questions in this site. Can you come up with an answer for question No. 1? – user140086 Nov 5 '15 at 16:27
  • My personal feeling is that there's little or no technical difference, but perhaps a slight difference in connotation: "a mystery" suggests that the subject is completely unknown or inscrutable; "mysterious" suggests that the subject is known but has some unknown or inscrutable attributes. For example, a "mystery guest" would be one whose identity we don't know (yet), whereas we might know the identity of a "mysterious guest" while knowing very little about them. – LukeH Nov 5 '15 at 16:43
  • @LukeH I an considering deleting No. 2 question. Would appreciate it if you could come up with an answer for No. 1. – user140086 Nov 5 '15 at 17:18
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    @Rathony: His motive remained mysterious is perfectly idiomatic. It may have a slightly different connotation along the lines that lukeH suggested, but the difference is slight. – Colin Fine Nov 6 '15 at 0:11
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I believe that the phrase "mystery guest" was popularized by the US television show What My Line?, in which a panel must guess the occupation of contestants (called "guests") by asking them yes-or-no questions. The last guest was a celebrity, and the panelists had to wear blindfolds and also guess the identity of the guest. The celebrity was called the "mystery guest." The show first aired on February 2, 1950, which predates the earliest use found in Ngrams. (Except for names recorded in registers of breeding livestock. Go figure.)

The identity of the mystery guest was a mystery only to the blind-folded panelists: the person was both well known and visible to the audience. So when you apply the word mystery to a person, it means that he or she is unknown to you, i.e., the only secret is their identity. On the other hand, when you call a person mysterious, you're talking about the person's inexplicable and unexplainable motives, intentions, behaviors, etc. Note that the enigmatic need not be anonymous -- the identity of mysterious persons may be known to you, so they needn't be mystery persons as well.

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