ambiguous

adjective
am·​big·​u·​ous | \ am-ˈbi-gyə-wəs How to pronounce ambiguous (audio) \

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

After spending too much of season 2 sidelined, Alex finally grows into the pragmatic, morally ambiguous tactician he was meant to be. Samantha Nelson, The Verge, "Season 2 of Runaways forges a bold new path — eventually," 21 Dec. 2018 Forced errors are left off because they are seen as ambiguous or unimportant. Craig O’shannessy, New York Times, "Why the Forced Error Does Not Get Its Due in Tennis," 8 June 2018 Nowhere is the ambiguous, back-and-forth nature of America’s post-9/11 wars more vividly illustrated than at the tiny combat outpost that Sgt. Michael M. Phillips, WSJ, "America’s Other Endless War: Battling al-Shabaab in Somalia," 17 Jan. 2019 Hard cases may involve ambiguous or convoluted statutes, requiring the justices to consider not just individual words, but also context, structure, and purpose. Carolyn Shapiro, Fortune, "Brett Kavanaugh Said Judges Should Just Follow the Law. Here’s Why That’s Bull," 10 July 2018 Yes, some experiments were definitely quark-gluon plasmas, but some experiments were more ambiguous. Chris Lee, Ars Technica, "Quark-gluon plasma reveals viscosity-free properties," 19 Dec. 2018 While many superhero shows continue to traffic in one-dimensional super villains, the sophisticated dramas give us more ambiguous wretches. Matthew Gilbert, BostonGlobe.com, "The best villains on TV," 6 July 2018 Previously, DeSUS had projected an ambiguous ideological position in a way that allowed it to focus instead on promoting the interests of all pensioners. Tim Haughton, Washington Post, "Slovenia voted on Sunday. Is an anti-immigrant government on the way?," 5 June 2018 But the illness is highly contagious and can be spread several days before the telltale red rash that follows the other, more ambiguous symptoms. Andy Marso, kansascity, "Another KC medical center is a measles exposure site. Here's why that's a big concern | The Kansas City Star," 26 Apr. 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

16 Apr 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 How to pronounce ambiguous (audio) \

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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