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.
I mean, sure, I can say ‘makes the sense ambiguous’. But there’s no reason not to have a one-word verb. After all, we have its antonym, disambiguate: to make something unambiguous. More on that later.
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.
The same issue arises with other common words, like as and while. She made the sauce, while he chopped the vegetables. Does while have a temporal sense, indicating concurrent activities, or a contrastive or additive sense, like whereas or and? The comma and other factors might guide our interpretation, but ultimately we can’t be certain.
Usages like this are ambiguating. As a copy-editor I come across them fairly often, and I’ve begun using ambiguate judiciously in referring to them. 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:
to make (an ambiguous expression) unambiguous [Collins]
remove uncertainty of meaning from (an ambiguous sentence, phrase, or other linguistic unit) [Oxford]
to establish a single grammatical or semantic interpretation for [American Heritage]
to establish a single semantic or grammatical interpretation for [Merriam-Webster]
to make a sentence or phrase perfectly clear by removing all uncertainty [Vocabulary.com]
to make clear the meaning of a word, phrase, etc. that has more than one meaning [Macmillan]
(Note the tantalisingly near-identical definitions from AHD and M-W.) 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. Dictionary aggregator OneLook shows it only in the crowd-sourced Wiktionary, whose entry defines it as ‘to make more ambiguous’ (which implies, oddly, that the thing was already ambiguous).
A sense of the two verbs’ relative frequency may be seen in this corpus comparison:
|Corpus name||Corpus size (words)||Time period||disambiguate||ambiguate|
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.
Its rival, ambiguify, appears in none of the corpora above but shows up a couple of times in Google Books (e.g., ‘Her words seemed to ambiguify their meanings’ —Norman Spinrad, The Void Captain’s Tale). Its chances of happening, fetch-style, are even smaller than those of ambiguate, yet it has its champions.
I’m not the first to point out the utility or validity of ambiguate, and a search on Twitter shows it in casual use. But even here its appearances are sporadic, and in printed or edited texts it remains marginal.
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.
Languagehat joins me in ‘urging the use of this occasionally useful word’.
Peter Gilliver at the OED tells me they have evidence for ambiguate back to 1969. Watch this space.