Let’s Ambiguate.

Stan at Sentence first has a post about a gap in the (official) lexicon:

If I asked you to name or invent a word that means ‘make ambiguous’, what would it be – ambiguify? ambiguate? I’ve felt an occasional need for such a term, to say that a word or piece of syntax ambiguates the meaning in text or speech. […]

Take this use of since: Since I’ve been injured, I haven’t gone running. Does it mean ‘because’ or ‘since the time that’? Is its meaning causal or temporal? Without further information, there’s no way to be sure. The choice of conjunction ambiguates the sense. […]

Disambiguate is also useful, being more specific than synonyms like clarify and resolve. Disambiguate is a relatively new and specialized term, but it’s established enough to appear in major dictionaries […] The OED has citations for disambiguate from 1960, generally in linguistic and philosophical contexts, and the word’s usage has risen steadily since then […] The noun disambiguation has been in use since at least 1827; it has become more familiar this century from its common appearance at the top of Wikipedia pages […]

As it turns out, ambiguate exists in the lexicon, but only barely – not enough for lexicographers to include it. […] Ambiguate is not even in the OED, that great historical cabinet whose vast shelves swell with obscure Latinate vocabulary. Instead of the verb you’d expect – even if labelled archaic or obsolete ­– nestled in among ambigual, ambigue (n.), ambigue (adj.), ambiguity, ambiguous, ambiguously, and ambiguousness, there is a lacuna where ambiguate might go. […]

When I mentioned ambiguate on Twitter a while back, I suggested that if you ever need to use the word, do. Its meaning should be transparent enough in context, and with more usage it will gain in familiarity and acceptability. Whether it will gain enough to ever show up in major dictionaries, or even in language corpora, is an open question.

I join him in urging the use of this occasionally useful word. (If you’re wondering about ambigue, it’s attested once as a noun, “An ambiguous statement or expression” [a1592 R. Greene Orpharion 48 What need these ambigues, this schollerisme, this foolery..? Canst thou not say flatly I am in loue.] and once as an adjective meaning ‘ambiguous’ [a1734 R. North Examen ii. v. ⁋19. 327 A clear Explication of running down, an ambigue Term of the Author’s]; I presume it’s pronounced /ˈæmbɪˌgjuː/.)


  1. J.W. Brewer says

    FWIW, I have heard with my own ears and possibly uttered with my own mouth the phrasal verb “vague [something] up,” meaning “intentionally make, e.g., a document less specific and precise than the current draft.” Typically you don’t stick an actual noun in, but say e.g. “vague it up,” although upon googling I learn that Buffy the Vampire Slayer once said to another character (maybe sarcastically/ironically?) “Can you vague that up for me?”

  2. “Vague up” is a great phrase! But of course it’s not quite the same (and part of a completely different realm of discourse).

  3. I just did a Google Books search on “ambigue,” not expecting English results, but I did get one: a paper by somebody named Eich (the table of contents, oddly, does not name the authors of the papers, but the surname is at the top of each page) in Modular Functions of One Variable I: Proceedings International Summer School, University of Antwerp, RUCA, July 17 – August 3, 1972, edited by Willem Kuyk, which includes sentences like (on this page) “An ambigue I-ideal θ is one whose left and right orders are equal to I.” I have no idea of the word is in regular use in that particular branch of mathematics or if Eich is adapting it from another language for the purposes of the paper.

  4. J.W. Brewer says

    Vagueness is not the same as ambiguity, but in practice making a text vaguer will tend to make it ambiguous (or more ambiguous, if it already was somewhat ambiguous). It doesn’t work the other way round, of course – language that generally appears precise can turn out to be ambiguous on some specific point that then ends up being quite important.

  5. David L. Gold says

    French ambigu is a masculine singular adjective (with feminine singular, masculine plural, and feminine plural forms). French ambigu is a masculine singular noun (with a plural form). French ambiguës is a feminine plural noun (with no known singular form). Details on meanings, dates of currently earliest-known use, etc. here: http://atilf.atilf.fr/dendien/scripts/tlfiv5/advanced.exe?8;s=3008116935.

    It remains to be seen whether English ambigue, whether adjective, noun, or both is of French origin.

    The link is to the entry ambigu in Trésor de la Langue Française informatisé, but it turns out not to work.

  6. OED says the noun is “< classical Latin ambiguum obscure saying (also ‘doubt, uncertainty’), use as noun of neuter of ambiguus ambiguous adj.” and the adj. is “< French ambigu or its etymon classical Latin ambiguus (see ambiguous adj.)”; both entries were updated in 2020.

  7. Not clear how this is such an issue – I’ve heard disambiguate hundreds of times, and a whole task in NLP has disambiguation as part of its name.

  8. Did you miss the part where this post is about ambiguate? Of course the dis- form is well established.

  9. Obnubilate?

  10. Jen in Edinburgh says

    (Your mind with the juice of the poppy and/or grape?)

  11. Maybe ambiguize, after French ambiguïser, German ambiguisieren?

  12. bertl finley says

    what about… to ambiggen

    (apologies, I could not resist)

  13. Stu Clayton says

    German “ambiguisieren”

    Ain’t no such word in common German parlance, not even the high-tone kind I read at bedtime. It’s just as contrived as “ambiguate”. There’s no law against a hapax or two, of course. It’s when the Liberaces of literacy put it in their standard program that you know the horses have bolted.

    Ambiguität oui, “ambiguisieren” merde.

    Phil Jennings’ “obnubilate” is the bonmot juste here.

  14. PlasticPaddy says

    I have seen obfuscate, but that is a step beyond vague in the direction of impenetrable.

  15. Jen in Edinburgh says

    As hinted above, I know it only from Patrick O’Brian.

    ‘It is the pity of the world, Dr McAdam, to see a man of your parts obnubilate his mind with the juice of the grape.’

    McAdam instantly collected his faculties and replied, ‘It is the pity of the world, Dr Maturin, to see a man of your parts obnubilate his mind with the juice of the poppy.’

    It has definitely stuck in my mind, though!

  16. “Ambiguate” should refer to allowing for two (or more) specific meanings, not just generally making things fuzzy or hard to understand. I don’t think “obnubilate” captures that, even if it can be applied to, say, a sentence rather than a mind.

  17. John Cowan says

    Phil Jennings’ “obnubilate” is the bonmot juste here.

    I can’t agree there. Obnubilate means ‘cover, as with a cloud or fog’ or metaphorically ‘cloud, becloud, befog’. So the two are saying that each others’ drugs make their minds cloudy and unable to think clearly.

    I have seen obfuscate, but that is a step beyond vague in the direction of impenetrable.

    “Now tell me: what was all this obscuration, obfuscation and fiddlefaddle concerning an Envoy from the far side of the moon?”

  18. Maybe I’ll finally get an OED cit out of this one (2010):

    … This is as much Hill’s method in the early poetry, where passives, participles, and particles frequently ambiguate agent and predicate, as in the later poetry, where Hill adopts ever newer techniques of ambiguation.

  19. The Ambigua by St. Maximus the Confessor is a collection of his extended comments on earlier Greek fathers. I’m not sure why the title is Latin but that’s how the work is known outside of Greece. In Russian, the title gets pluralized one more time: Амбигвы.


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