am·​bi·​gu·​i·​ty | \ ˌam-bə-ˈgyü-ə-tē How to pronounce ambiguity (audio) \
plural ambiguities

Definition of ambiguity

1a : the quality or state of being ambiguous especially in meaning The ambiguity of the poem allows several interpretations.
b : a word or expression that can be understood in two or more possible ways : an ambiguous word or expression

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Where Ambiguity Comes From

It might not be immediately clear (unless you are fluent in Latin) how ambiguity ("uncertainty") and ambidextrous ("using both hands with equal ease") are connected, aside from the fact that they both begin with the same four letters. Ambiguity (and ambiguous) comes from the Latin ambiguus, which was formed by combining ambi- (meaning "both") and agere ("to drive"). Ambidextrous combines the same prefix with dexter (meaning "skillful; relating to or situated on the right"). So each of these words carries the meaning of "both" in its history; one with the sense of "both meanings" and the other with that of "both hands." Ambiguity may be used to refer either to something (such as a word) which has multiple meanings, or to a more general state of uncertainty.

Examples of ambiguity in a Sentence

A third factor amping your desire to speed things along: Despite the euphoria of those first kisses and dates, the initial stages of infatuation can be incredibly unsettling. "You aren't sure yet where you stand with your mate, so you're anxious to shake the ambiguity," explains Regan. — Molly Triffin et al., Cosmopolitan, January 2008 Above the level of molecular biology, the notion of "gene" has become increasingly complex. The chapter in which Ridley addresses the ambiguities of this slippery word is an expository tour de force. He considers seven possible meanings of gene as used in different contexts: a unit of heredity; an interchangeable part of evolution; a recipe for a metabolic product;  … a development switch; a unit of selection; and a unit of instinct. — Raymond Tallis, Prospect, September 2003 The troubles in the Empire at the turn of the seventeenth century have often been laid at the door of the Peace of Augsburg. While it is true that the 1555 agreement papered over some unsolvable problems and contained ambiguities and loopholes, it had been conceived as a pragmatic compromise, and it did succeed in preserving the peace in Germany for one generation. — Alison D. Anderson, On the Verge of War, 1999 Her letters and diaries describe her own feelings of insecurity and worries about her possible fate if she could no longer work, and they also tell us a great deal about the ambiguity of her position within the society in which she lived, and her determination to defend and maintain her own status. — Joanna Martin, A Governess In the Age of Jane Austen, 1998 the ambiguities in his answers the ambiguity of the clairvoyant's messages from the deceased allowed the grieving relatives to interpret them however they wished
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Recent Examples on the Web Under its policy of nuclear ambiguity, Israel neither confirms nor denies having atomic weapons though it is widely believed to possess them. Jon Gambrell, Star Tribune, "Analyst: Missile motor test likely caused blast in Israel," 25 Apr. 2021 Some critics of the ride have said there is an ambiguity surrounding its setting, which could appear to be set in the Civil War and features a character named Uncle Remus, who some perceive is a slave. Kaelan Deese, Washington Examiner, "Disney updates dress code for park employees, allowing tattoos and 'gender-inclusive' hairstyles," 14 Apr. 2021 One thing that's interesting about the finale is the moral ambiguity. Devan Coggan,, "WandaVision creator breaks down the finale’s grief and moral ‘gray areas’," 10 Mar. 2021 There is no ambiguity that the living wage, which rose to $16.30 an hour on July 1, applies to the lion’s share of San Diego contracts where the city is required to spend taxpayer money. David Garrick, San Diego Union-Tribune, "San Diego tightening living wage law to eliminate confusion, avoid contractor lawsuits," 29 Dec. 2020 And a 150-page playbook was compiled so there was no ambiguity as to which protocols should be followed. Daniel Bentley, Fortune, "How the studio behind Jurassic World Dominion made a blockbuster during a pandemic," 2 Dec. 2020 And there is little ambiguity in the way Mr. Trump and his allies are falsely depicting them as bastions of corruption. Nick Corasaniti, New York Times, "Republicans Rewrite an Old Playbook on Disenfranchising Black Americans," 22 Nov. 2020 So as the count continues nationwide to determine who won the presidency, there is no ambiguity in Alabama. Paul Gattis |, al, "Trump received a higher percentage of votes in Alabama in 2020 than 4 years ago," 6 Nov. 2020 In many cases that seek to litigate police conduct, there is a certain level of ambiguity at play. Josiah Bates, Time, "Derek Chauvin's Trial Set to Begin Over the Death of George Floyd," 25 Mar. 2021

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'ambiguity.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of ambiguity

14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1a

History and Etymology for ambiguity

Middle English ambiguyte, anbiguite "uncertainty, indecision," borrowed from Anglo-French & Latin; Anglo-French ambiguité "doubtfulness of meaning, uncertainty," borrowed from Latin ambiguitāt-, ambiguitās, from ambiguus "unresolved, of uncertain outcome, ambiguous" + -itāt-, -itās -ity

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Time Traveler for ambiguity

Time Traveler

The first known use of ambiguity was in the 14th century

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Statistics for ambiguity

Last Updated

1 May 2021

Cite this Entry

“Ambiguity.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 12 May. 2021.

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More Definitions for ambiguity



English Language Learners Definition of ambiguity

: something that does not have a single clear meaning : something that is ambiguous


am·​bi·​gu·​i·​ty | \ ˌam-bə-ˈgyü-ə-tē How to pronounce ambiguity (audio) \
plural ambiguities

Kids Definition of ambiguity

: something that can be understood in more than one way The message was filled with confusing ambiguities.

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