ambiguity

noun
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 Barris chooses show titles that leave no room for ambiguity about what the series will focus on. Ariana Brockington, refinery29.com, "Netflix’s blackAF Might Hold The Record For Celebrity Cameos In A Single Season," 20 Apr. 2020 Given the ambiguities, scientists have long wondered whether other genes might counterbalance APOE e4's effects. Gary Stix, Scientific American, "Longevity Gene May Protect against a Notorious Alzheimer’s Risk Gene," 14 Apr. 2020 No series has more insightfully explored loss as a surreal, unknowable process of life, nor found more catharsis in charting its vital ambiguities. Isaac Feldberg, Fortune, "What to watch on HBO while social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic," 4 Apr. 2020 While the Department of Health and Human Services has provided additional guidance on de-identifying data, its guidance is not without ambiguity. Patricia S. Calhoun, STAT, "De-identified data exception in HIPAA poses a litigation risk," 16 Apr. 2020 The court judgment leaves too much ambiguity over what constitutes an essential good for the company to keep its warehouses open,... Matthew Dalton, WSJ, "Amazon Shuts French Warehouses After Court Orders Coronavirus Restrictions," 16 Apr. 2020 The weapon of choice against the coronavirus for most states and municipalities is social distancing, a strategy lauded by disease specialists, but also one fraught with ambiguity on the back end. Jeff Zillgitt, USA TODAY, "How will sports avoid a 'biological bomb' when returning from coronavirus hiatus?," 27 Mar. 2020 Government officials and some law enforcement agencies echo that, saying some establishments have taken advantage of the order’s ambiguity to continue operating. Adrienne Roberts, Detroit Free Press, "Why it's hard to define 'essential business' in Michigan," 9 Apr. 2020 Two days later, the conference ended all ambiguity by canceling spring sports. oregonlive, "Coronavirus pandemic is causing college coaches to operate without a road map," 18 Mar. 2020

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

15th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1a

History and Etymology for ambiguity

see ambiguous

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Time Traveler for ambiguity

Time Traveler

The first known use of ambiguity was in the 15th century

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Statistics for ambiguity

Last Updated

26 May 2020

Cite this Entry

“Ambiguity.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ambiguity. Accessed 27 May. 2020.

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More Definitions for ambiguity

ambiguity

noun
How to pronounce ambiguity (audio)

English Language Learners Definition of ambiguity

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

ambiguity

noun
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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Comments on ambiguity

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