ambiguity

noun
am·bi·gu·i·ty | \ ˌam-bə-ˈgyü-ə-tē \
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

Anderson, not yet 30 and fresh from the MFA program in ceramics at UCLA, puts his abundant technical facility to dazzling use, making work of unresolvable ambiguity and rich multiplicity. Leah Ollman, latimes.com, "The disturbing meets the sweet in Alex Anderson's new sculptures at Gavlak," 4 July 2018 Most of the other songs on the album address relationships and broader life choices in various states of distress, presenting ambiguities and misunderstandings in an open-ended light. Peter Margasak, Chicago Reader, "Irish singer Brigid Mae Power infuses rustic folk music with an incantatory splendor," 29 June 2018 But if the sentence were Jane ate the hot dog with relish, the ambiguity would be even more pronounced. Ben Zimmer, The Atlantic, "How Computers Parse the Ambiguity of Everyday Language," 27 June 2018 In the meantime, the ethical ambiguity surrounding his quest may be the most provocative aspect of the show. Kathryn Miles, Outside Online, "'Cooper's Treasure' and the Gray Area of Wreck Hunting," 21 June 2018 There is enough ambiguity and alternative theories to account for the multiple social media accounts. Jeff Zillgitt, USA TODAY, "76ers executive Bryan Colangelo's reputation, job at stake over Twitter scandal," 30 May 2018 And hopefully this rule is spelled out more clearly than the former catch rule, so that the ambiguity and subjectivity will be lessened. Jonathan Jones, SI.com, "NFL’s New Targeting Rule About to Cause a World of Officiating Chaos," 22 May 2018 Of course, all this ambiguity is part of the Westworld obstacle course. Todd Vanderwerff, Vox, "Westworld pauses its other action for a mostly thrilling trip to Shogun World," 21 May 2018 Rarely mounting direct challenges, China has instead tested, probed and introduced ambiguities into every aspect of global governance. The Economist, "Xi’s world order: July 2024," 7 July 2018

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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Learn More about ambiguity

Phrases Related to ambiguity

moral ambiguity

Statistics for ambiguity

Last Updated

16 Sep 2018

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Time Traveler for ambiguity

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

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More Definitions for ambiguity

ambiguity

noun

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 \
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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