Podcast ambiguous

Printable Version
Pronunciation: æm-bi-gyu-wês Hear it!

Part of Speech: Adjective

Meaning: 1. Having more than one possible interpretation, unclear, as in the statement, "Lucy doesn't like dressing with her turkey" (she doesn't like stuffing with it, either). 2. Uncertain, in doubt, questionable, as to have an ambiguous future.

Notes: This Good Word has two nouns: ambiguousness is the state of being ambiguous while ambiguity may mean this or "an ambiguous thing" and may be pluralized, as the ambiguities of life. Do not confuse this word with ambivalent "undecided as to two choices". Ambiguity applies to inanimate things and states but only people (well, maybe animals, too) may be ambivalent about a choice. (Don't trip on the [uou] vowel cluster at the end of ambiguous, either.)

In Play: Ambiguity occurs when a phrase has two or more possible interpretations: "When I told Pedro that I shot an elephant in my pajamas, he asked how an elephant got into my pajamas" (thank you, Groucho Marx). Words like bank and dope that have more than one interpretation are polysemantic, not ambiguous. This sentence is ambiguous: "Cecily couldn't reach a decision on the boat." My personal favorite is: "Storewide sale: Dresses half off."

Word History: Ambiguous is a light English make-over of Latin ambiguus "uncertain", from the verb ambigere "to wander around, meander", based on amb(i)- "around" + agere "to drive, lead". The root ag- is found in many words, such as the English Latinate borrowings agent and coagulate. The past participle of agere is actus, the root of which we see in act, action, and many others. If you think you still don't know squat about this root, you are barking up the right tree for squat comes from Old French esquatir "to crush". This verb derived from Latin ex "out" + quatir "to press flat". Quatir, in turn, was originally spoken Latin coactire, which comes from coactus, the past participle of cogere "to compress". Finally, this verb comprises co "together" + our old friend agere "to drive, lead". How is that for an etymological journey? (It is a journey for which we unambiguously thank Donna Coffield, the thoughtful reader who sent us forth on it.)

Dr. Goodword,

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