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 But the forceful declaration is merely the end of an ambivalent record, and, for critics, demonstrates her willingness to get in sync with the demands of the GOP base. Darius Tahir, CBS News, 20 Nov. 2023 And the next day, the resident comes out and makes some comments that were highly ambivalent about that event. Fortune Editors, Fortune, 9 Nov. 2023 Through the perspective of the ambivalent party, the humor takes on a grim quality. Bonnie Johnson, Los Angeles Times, 5 Oct. 2023 The question is whether the brands welcoming the influencers to their fashion shows are onto something other brands haven’t gotten yet, or merely hungry for exposure amid an ambivalent American fashion audience. Rachel Tashjian, Washington Post, 12 Sep. 2023 Erik Erikson taught me how to be ambivalent about psychoanalysis. Masha Gessen, The New Yorker, 12 Nov. 2023 But as richer countries struggle to understand the global South—and especially African nations’ ambivalent reaction to Russia’s war on Ukraine—the lingering effect of abandonment during the pandemic is underappreciated. Mark Suzman september 8, Foreign Affairs, 8 Sep. 2023 If artistry is a birthright, then so too is the ability to grapple with what’s complex, ambivalent, and insoluble. Sara Holdren, Vulture, 30 Aug. 2023 Jobim, with his nickname of Tom, enjoyed international success, which for a while left Brazil ambivalent about him. Owen Gleiberman, Variety, 12 Oct. 2023 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 28 Nov. 2023.

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