ambiguous

adjective
am·​big·​u·​ous | \ am-ˈbi-gyə-wəs \

Definition of ambiguous

1a : doubtful or uncertain especially from obscurity or indistinctness eyes of an ambiguous color
2 : capable of being understood in two or more possible senses or ways an ambiguous smile an ambiguous term a deliberately ambiguous reply

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Other Words from ambiguous

ambiguously adverb
ambiguousness noun

Choose the Right Synonym for ambiguous

obscure, dark, vague, enigmatic, cryptic, ambiguous, equivocal mean not clearly understandable. obscure implies a hiding or veiling of meaning through some inadequacy of expression or withholding of full knowledge. obscure poems dark implies an imperfect or clouded revelation often with ominous or sinister suggestion. muttered dark hints of revenge vague implies a lack of clear formulation due to inadequate conception or consideration. a vague sense of obligation enigmatic stresses a puzzling, mystifying quality. enigmatic occult writings cryptic implies a purposely concealed meaning. cryptic hints of hidden treasure ambiguous applies to language capable of more than one interpretation. an ambiguous directive equivocal applies to language left open to differing interpretations with the intention of deceiving or evading. moral precepts with equivocal phrasing

Ambiguous vs. Ambivalent

The difficulty that many people have in distinguishing between ambiguous and ambivalent shows that all that is needed to create confusion with words is to begin them with several of the same letters. In spite of the fact that these two words have histories, meanings, and origins that are fairly distinct, people often worry about mistakenly using one for the other.

Dating to the 16th century, ambiguous is quite a bit older than ambivalent, which appears to have entered English in the jargon of early 20th-century psychologists. Both words are in some fashion concerned with duality: ambivalent relates to multiple and contradictory feelings, whereas ambiguous often describes something with several possible meanings that create uncertainty.

The words’ etymologies offer some help in distinguishing between them. Their shared prefix, ambi-, means "both." The -valent in ambivalent comes from the Late Latin valentia ("power") and, in combination with ambi-, suggests the pull of two different emotions. The -guous in ambiguous, on the other hand, comes ultimately from Latin agere ("to drive, to lead"); paired with ambi-, it suggests movement in two directions at once, and hence, a wavering or uncertainty.

Examples of ambiguous in a Sentence

Greater familiarity with this artist makes one's assessment of him more tentative rather than less. His best pictures exude a hypersensitive, ambiguous aura of grace. — Peter Schjeldahl, New Yorker, 10 Mar. 2003 He seeks sources for the speech's ideas in Lincoln's ambiguous stance toward organized religion, in the sermons of preachers he listened to, and in his Bible-reading habit. — Gilbert Taylor, Booklist, 15 Dec. 2001 In Mexico we follow the fraught, ambiguous journey of a Tijuana cop … caught between the ruthless, corrupt general … he works for and the DEA, which wants him to inform on his countrymen. — David Ansen, Newsweek, 8 Jan. 2001 Physicians could manipulate reimbursement rules to help their patients obtain coverage for care that the physicians perceive to be necessary, for example, through ambiguous documentation or by exaggerating the severity of patients' conditions. — Michael K. Wynia et al., Journal of the American Medical Association, 12 Apr. 2000 We were confused by the ambiguous wording of the message. He looked at her with an ambiguous smile. Due to the ambiguous nature of the question, it was difficult to choose the right answer. the ambiguous position of women in modern society
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Recent Examples on the Web

Leaking, on the other hand, is a more morally and ethically ambiguous term. Chris Cillizza, CNN, "Leaking 101: Is James Comey a leaking liar?," 27 Apr. 2018 Even then, the reference is ambiguous and implies the law might no longer be in place. Bloomberg.com, "AP Exclusive: Morocco World Cup Bid Masks Homosexuality Ban," 16 Apr. 2018 Despite the woman's appearance—deep, tan, racially ambiguous skin; full lips; and wavy hair—a deeper dive through Emma Hallberg's feed showed that before all the spray tans, her skin was actually quite pale. Teryn Payne, Glamour, "White Influencers Appearing Black Is the Instagram Trend No One Asked For," 14 Nov. 2018 From the beginning—when she was introduced as a mysterious but intriguing guest in a previous unrevealed park based on the British Raj—Emily was set up as a morally ambiguous foil to her father. Scott Meslow, GQ, "Westworld Season 2 Episode 9 Recap: Here Comes the Man in Black," 18 June 2018 Iran’s long-term intentions remain ambiguous, despite the deal in 2015 to constrain its nuclear programme. The Economist, "Not so MADWhy nuclear stability is under threat," 25 Jan. 2018 For reasons that remain ambiguous, Shohei Ohtani chose the Los Angeles Angels over six other clubs that now must face a reality without a potential two-way star. Dennis Lin, sandiegouniontribune.com, "Padres move on to other needs after being turned down by Shohei Ohtani," 11 Dec. 2017 In Japan, where foreign executives are scarce and even the biggest corporate bigwigs tend to keep a low profile, Ghosn’s status is more ambiguous. Elaine Ganley, The Seattle Times, "Renault board: Ghosn to remain CEO while detained in Japan," 19 Nov. 2018 Xiaomi is above all a creature of its environment, which in China means rock-star bosses, ambiguous rules, intense competition, proximity to the world’s manufacturing hub, and fast-changing consumer behaviour. The Economist, "Xiaomi’s forthcoming IPO shows how the rules of business are changing," 7 June 2018

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'ambiguous.' 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 ambiguous

1528, in the meaning defined at sense 1a

History and Etymology for ambiguous

Latin ambiguus, from ambigere to be undecided, from ambi- + agere to drive — more at agent

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Last Updated

8 Jan 2019

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Time Traveler for ambiguous

The first known use of ambiguous was in 1528

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More Definitions for ambiguous

ambiguous

adjective

English Language Learners Definition of ambiguous

: able to be understood in more than one way : having more than one possible meaning

: not expressed or understood clearly

ambiguous

adjective
am·​big·​u·​ous | \ am-ˈbi-gyə-wəs \

Kids Definition of ambiguous

: able to be understood in more than one way an ambiguous explanation

Other Words from ambiguous

ambiguously adverb answered ambiguously

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Comments on ambiguous

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