am·​biv·​a·​lent am-ˈbi-və-lənt How to pronounce ambivalent (audio)
: having or showing simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings toward something or someone : characterized by ambivalence
… people whose relationship to their job is ambivalent, conflicted.Terrence Rafferty
Americans are deeply ambivalent about the country's foreign role. Isolationist yearnings coexist uneasily with superpower policies.David P. Calleo
ambivalently adverb
He spoke ambivalently about his military experiences.

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The words ambivalent and ambivalence entered English during the early 20th century in the field of psychology. They came to us through the International Scientific Vocabulary, a set of words common to people of science who speak different languages. The prefix ambi- means "both," and the -valent and -valence parts ultimately derive from the Latin verb valēre, meaning "to be strong." Not surprisingly, an ambivalent person is someone who has strong feelings on more than one side of a question or issue.

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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 ambivalent in a Sentence

Recent Examples on the Web Trey Gargano has been named executive vice president of ad sales, taking the reins of the outlet’s efforts to drive millions of dollars in advertising revenue at a time when Madison Avenue has seemed more ambivalent about news content. Brian Steinberg, Variety, 15 Feb. 2024 Mental health experts usually caution against using sarcasm as a form of humor in relationships or otherwise due to its ambivalent and often passive-aggressive nature. Mark Travers, Forbes, 9 Feb. 2024 Most people exist in a state of ambivalent, ineffable, inchoate, unknown desire. Merve Emre, The New York Review of Books, 30 Jan. 2024 Cindy Warmbier and her husband, Fred Warmbier, have had an ambivalent relationship with Trump. Scott Wartman, The Enquirer, 23 Jan. 2024 Branson was notably ambivalent about his newfound status as an elder statesman. Ezra Marcus, New York Times, 30 Jan. 2024 Watching an early appearance of Melanie on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson only left me more intrigued about her ambivalent relationship toward fame: How could the same person be so confident and charismatic behind a guitar, but so diffident and uncomfortable chatting with Carson? Joseph Fenity, The Hollywood Reporter, 30 Jan. 2024 The book opens with an ambivalent turn of sorcery, a conjuring act that is also an exorcism. Jess Bergman, The New Yorker, 8 Nov. 2023 This ambivalent attitude continued well into my teens. Christian Allaire, Vogue, 25 Jan. 2024 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'ambivalent.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


borrowed from German, from ambi- ambi- + -valent, in äquivalent equivalent

Note: The German term was introduced, along with Ambivalenz ambivalence, by the Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler (1857-1939) in "Zur Theorie des schizophrenen Negativismus," Psychiatrisch-Neurologische Wochenschrift, Band 12, Nr. 18 (July 30, 1910), p. 171.

First Known Use

1912, in the meaning defined above

Time Traveler
The first known use of ambivalent was in 1912


Dictionary Entries Near ambivalent

Cite this Entry

“Ambivalent.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 25 Feb. 2024.

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