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 Under this ambiguity, the effect of conflicts of interest are amplified. Sunita Sah, Scientific American, "Conflicts of Interest and COVID," 3 Dec. 2020 Pildes argues that this ambiguity does not imply a failure of the legal system that the framers put in place. Amy Mckeever, National Geographic, "Here’s what happens if a U.S. president refuses to leave office," 19 Nov. 2020 And no amount of university-level enablement, support from billionaire booster Charles Koch or ambiguity resulting from an investigation can make that stain go away. Dan Wolken, USA TODAY, "Opinion: Facing more allegations, Gregg Marshall's run as an elite college basketball coach appears to be over," 20 Oct. 2020 But continued ambiguity in the face of Mr. Xi’s escalating rhetoric and provocative movements by his armed forces in the Taiwan Strait presents the greater risk of a confrontation as dangerous as the Cuban Missile Crisis. Paul Wolfowitz, WSJ, "The Korean War’s Lesson for Taiwan," 13 Oct. 2020 As the Gophers trudged back underneath the stands, ambiguity of what next season could hold still lingering, Burrell took the actual Axe in hand and ran across the field, his teammates in tow. Megan Ryan, Star Tribune, "Badgers defeat Gophers 20-17 in overtime, keeping Paul Bunyan's Axe," 20 Dec. 2020 Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans seized that ambiguity to great advantage, stacking the electors in their favor and cultivating their local agendas. Sara Georgini, Smithsonian Magazine, "How John Adams Managed a Peaceful Transition of Presidential Power," 7 Dec. 2020 With tens of billions of dollars per year at stake, that ambiguity set off a flurry of lobbying as the Treasury Department set about writing regulations. Robert Faturechi, ProPublica, "Georgia Senator David Perdue Privately Pushed for a Tax Break for Rich Sports Teamowners," 20 Nov. 2020 In a country that runs on migrants – who make up nearly 90% of the population – and markets itself as a hub of international business, the amendments remove some legal ambiguity for many seeking to live and work there. Lindsey Mcginnis, The Christian Science Monitor, "Points of Progress: Personal freedoms increase in UAE, and more," 20 Nov. 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

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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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 Jan 2021

Cite this Entry

“Ambiguity.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 23 Jan. 2021.

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More Definitions for ambiguity


How to pronounce ambiguity (audio)

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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