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

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 See More
Recent Examples on the Web The fact that there is some ambiguity to the term may be a good starting point for the two countries to embark on a dialogue about whether antisatellite testing, for instance, is a peaceful activity. Bin Li, Scientific American, 9 May 2022 There is enough ambiguity in the pope’s remarks to have sparked a debate over their interpretation. Francis X. Rocca, WSJ, 5 May 2022 The semicovert operation required a certain level of comfort with ambiguity, and the embodiment of that was the other English speaker: Mykyta. Mac William Bishop, Rolling Stone, 12 Mar. 2022 The reason that Demna continues to captivate the fashion world, and why his Balenciaga is such essential viewing, is his singular, almost revolutionary comfort with ambiguity. Rachel Tashjian, Harper's BAZAAR, 7 Mar. 2022 With that ambiguity — and because this year’s legislative session does not deal with budget appropriations — the committee decided to remove the financial enticement altogether. Sarah Bowman, The Indianapolis Star, 1 Mar. 2022 For many employers, luxe spaces occupied by just a handful of office stalwarts have come to stand as reminders of the real costs associated with the ambiguity of hybrid work. New York Times, 16 Nov. 2021 If there’s any ambiguity, companies should seek professional guidance. Forbes, 14 Apr. 2022 But this ambiguity proved to be an asset in her work. New York Times, 6 Apr. 2022 See More

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.

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

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Last Updated

13 May 2022

Cite this Entry

“Ambiguity.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 20 May. 2022.

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More Definitions for ambiguity


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.

More from Merriam-Webster on ambiguity

Nglish: Translation of ambiguity for Spanish Speakers

Britannica English: Translation of ambiguity for Arabic Speakers Encyclopedia article about ambiguity


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