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

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 Such ambiguity may be unwelcome to those looking for definitive answers one way or the other about SSRIs. Ej Dickson, Rolling Stone, 30 July 2022 For those who opt to be involved, the A.R.P. has created a standardized set of instructions and recommendations to remove some of the ambiguity of ringside medicine. New York Times, 29 July 2022 Emmy nominees pretty much dispense with the symbolic ambiguity of superhuman abilities and get right to the point. Los Angeles Times, 12 July 2022 The deliberate ambiguity of the plus sign and the letters themselves allows for a declaration both of love to LGBTQ+ people and of that community’s love for Ukraine. Ian Malone, Vogue, 29 June 2022 Strategic ambiguity has long been the U.S. policy toward Taiwan – really since the 1950s but certainly from 1979 onward. Meredith Oyen, The Conversation, 24 May 2022 The ambiguity throughout the draft is likely no accident. Mary Anastasia O’grady, WSJ, 22 May 2022 In Nebraska, lawmakers are considering a bill that the American Civil Liberties Union said may create barriers for women struggling with infertility due to the ambiguity of the wording regarding when life begins. BostonGlobe.com, 11 May 2022 The ambiguity is characteristic of a tradition that could be described as the Black Atlantic Submarine, which reconceives the ocean as a sacred realm somewhere between cradle and grave. Julian Lucas, The New Yorker, 4 May 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

Learn More About ambiguity

Time Traveler for ambiguity

Time Traveler

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

See more words from the same century

Dictionary Entries Near ambiguity

ambigram

ambiguity

ambiguous

See More Nearby Entries 

Statistics for ambiguity

Last Updated

5 Aug 2022

Cite this Entry

“Ambiguity.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ambiguity. Accessed 15 Aug. 2022.

Style: MLA
MLACheck Mark Icon ChicagoCheck Mark Icon APACheck Mark Icon Merriam-WebsterCheck Mark Icon

More Definitions for ambiguity

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.

More from Merriam-Webster on ambiguity

Nglish: Translation of ambiguity for Spanish Speakers

Britannica English: Translation of ambiguity for Arabic Speakers

Britannica.com: Encyclopedia article about ambiguity

WORD OF THE DAY

Test Your Vocabulary

Odd Habits and Quirks

  • image1926873504
  • Which of the following best describes an easily irritated person?
Spell It

Can you spell these 10 commonly misspelled words?

TAKE THE QUIZ
Universal Daily Crossword

A daily challenge for crossword fanatics.

TAKE THE QUIZ
Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!