Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 49: Mixed Feelings ... or Mixed Message?

This week's topic on Grammar Grater addresses a couple of words that sound alike and come fairly close in meaning, yet can cause a bit of confusion: ambivalent and ambiguous. This topic was suggested to us by Steven, a listener in Eniwa, Japan.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word ambivalence means "the coexistence in one person of contradictory emotions or attitudes (such as love and hatred) towards a person or thing." Ambivalent is the adjective form and it means "having contradictory emotions (such as love and hatred) towards the same person or thing; or acting on or arguing for sometimes one and sometimes the other of two opposites."

According to The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, the word ambivalent is a 20th century invention. Given that the word describes an emotional state, it's not surprising it was created by someone in the field of psychology. Ambivalent—or at least its German form, ambivalenz—was coined in 1910 by German psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler from Latin ambi meaning both or in two ways and Latin valentia meaning strength. It migrated into English shortly thereafter and its forms are based on the word equivalent.

This useful word was quickly embraced by people outside the psychological field. The Oxford English Dictionary describes that by 1929, ambivalent was firmly established in literary and general use. It's commonly used to express mixed feelings.
I'm ambivalent about seafood. I guess I could take it or leave it.
I'm ambivalent about baseball, but I love basketball.
In sharp contrast to ambivalent, ambiguous is a much older word. The Oxford English Dictionary traces citations of it back to the 1500s.

That dictionary says that ambiguous can mean "doubtful, questionable; indistinct; obscure; not clearly defined; having more than one interpretation or explanation." A popular synonym for ambiguous is vague. Here are examples of ambiguous in action:
I don't like stories with ambiguous endings. I think that's why I like mysteries: everything comes to a neat conclusion.
My brother has invited me for dinner at his new place, but he never names a specific date. It's always ambiguous, as in 'Let's get together sometime.'
It's easy to see how these words wander fairly close to one another in meaning and can get confused. Perhaps this clears up some of the ambiguity.

Sources: Oxford English Dictionary; Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology.

Music from this Episode: "Should I Stay or Should I Go" by the Clash; "Change Your Mind" by Walker Kong.

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