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 The Trump administration’s stance on the war has been ambiguous. WSJ, "Inside Libya’s Brutal Battle for Control of Tripoli," 28 June 2019 In a week of folly on an Adriatic beach, this ambiguous lover first forces the doctor out into the open, then runs off with his money, abandoning him to public disgrace. Tim Parks, Harper's magazine, "Behind the High Walls," 10 Feb. 2019 During the reign of the king’s father, Bhumibol, the relationship between the armed forces and the monarchy was ambiguous. The Economist, "Relations between Thailand’s army and king are becoming one-sided," 5 Sep. 2019 The research on whether most do or do not is ambiguous, but the fancy persists, in part because, consciously or unconsciously, people think that emphasizing the resemblance will set a man’s mind at ease, thus fortifying the paternal bond. Margaret Talbot, The New Yorker, "The Paternity Reveal," 24 June 2019 The sequel is not as ambiguous and open-ended as the original. Alexandra Alter, New York Times, "‘I’m Too Old to Be Scared by Much’: Margaret Atwood on Her ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ Sequel," 5 Sep. 2019 While opponents say current licensing regulations are ambiguous and inconsistent, supporters of the licensing regime say undoing the restrictions would usurp the authority of state boards and create additional burdens for agencies. Tracy Jan, Washington Post, "After prison, more punishment," 3 Sep. 2019 The screen is in focus, everything else is out of focus — everything becomes more ambiguous and mysterious in a way. Los Angeles Times, "Q&A: Anthony Hernandez’s L.A. photos are shown all over the world. L.A. museums need to catch up," 25 July 2019 Garbus isn't out here playing detective and hasn't taken it upon herself to solve the murder and that leads to a documentary that's ambiguous and intentionally frustrating in a way that's unique in this roster of July docs. Daniel Fienberg, The Hollywood Reporter, "'Who Killed Garrett Phillips?': TV Review," 22 July 2019

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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More Definitions for ambiguous

ambiguous

adjective
How to pronounce ambiguous (audio)

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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not being in agreement or harmony

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