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 But that ambiguity cuts to the emotionally delicate core of this seventh-grade saga. Ew Staff,, "The 50 best teen shows of all time," 10 May 2021 With each passing year, these lists become ever more misleading, owing to their fundamental financial ambiguity. New York Times, "High Schools Are Posting Their College Lists. Don’t Be Misled.," 7 May 2021 Even in Liar’s Poker, which Lewis wrote as a memoir of his stint as a bond salesman at Salomon Brothers, his characters betray a certain moral ambiguity. Cody Delistraty, WSJ, "Michael Lewis’s ‘The Premonition’: A Closer Look at How the Pandemic Response Went Awry," 3 May 2021 The term’s popularity has likely been aided by its ambiguity. Adam Leith Gollner, The New Yorker, "Does Your Wine Really Taste Like Rocks?," 3 May 2021 There’s too much ambiguity between the mayor, city manager and council, regarding roles and responsibilities. Andrea Reeves, The Enquirer, "Cecil Thomas: 'I'm running to restore the integrity of the Queen City'," 30 Apr. 2021 Although spring, as a transitional time, may often show connections to both past and future, to a winter that was and a summer that is to be, Tuesday seemed to show less seasonal ambiguity. Washington Post, "Warm, warmer, warmest: The days from Sunday to Tuesday," 7 Apr. 2021 Unfortunately, humans have a tendency to spin ambiguity into the most favorable outcome available, says Uma Karmarkar, a behavioral-economics expert who studies decision making at UC San Diego. Katherine J. Wu, The Atlantic, "Vaccine Cheat Days Are Adding Up," 4 Apr. 2021 Arizona attacked the provision on two fronts, the first being ambiguity. Zachary Halaschak, Washington Examiner, "Arizona joins Ohio in suing Biden administration as tax battle escalates," 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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Learn More about ambiguity

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

13 May 2021

Cite this Entry

“Ambiguity.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 18 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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