The strange absence of ‘ambiguate’

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:

Google Ngram Viewer graph from 1950 to 2019 showing a steady rise in use of 'disambiguate' and a more gradual rise in use of 'disambiguates', 'disambiguated', and 'disambiguating', all in blue. This contrasts with hardly any frequency of use for the equivalent forms of 'ambiguate', in red, which are all barely present above the X-axis.

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:

Image of Wikipedia page on Disambiguation, showing that it too must be disambiguated.

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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
COHA 475 million 1820–2019 0 0
COCA 1 billion 1990–2019 57 0
GloWbE 1.9 billion 2012–2013 117 0
iWeb 14 billion 2017 811 0

Image from search results on iWeb corpus, 'The 14 Billion Word Web Corpus', stating: 'Sorry, there are no matching records'.

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.

Updates:

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.

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[You’ll find more neologisms in the Sentence first archives.]

13 Responses to The strange absence of ‘ambiguate’

  1. astraya says:

    Earlier today I posted about the relative rarity of ‘caree’ as a person receiving care from a carer. Google asked me if I meant carer or career.

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s an interesting case. No presence in any dictionary that I checked, but then carer (in the related sense) is relatively new, as you note, so maybe caree will gain ground over time.

  2. Yes, this appears to be the sole and unique candidate to fill a glaring lexical gap, hyponymous to ‘confuse’.

  3. azzurosky says:

    Recently I came across two new(?) terms designed to fill gaps: freudenfreude, to rejoice in another’s good fortune; and ert, a determination not to be inert.

  4. It is a useful word. I say go forth and use it.

  5. Kenneth@KASpencer.com says:

    Now now, Stan: “I haven’t gone running.”. Surely you can do better than that! At least try “I haven’t been running.”, or “I have stopped running.”. When will the murder of our English Language cease?

    Kenneth Spencer

    • Stan Carey says:

      Kenneth: There is nothing wrong with ‘go running’. The construction has been in use for over 500 years, it has been part of standardized English for centuries, and it’s equally unobjectionable in less formal registers. I don’t know what bogus rule you’re imagining, but you’re mistaken. You’re also being a bit rude.

      And no, English is not being ‘murdered’.

  6. D-AW says:

    Here it is in a sentence of mine from 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. …

    I remember looking it up at the time and being puzzled, then concerned, that it wasn’t in OED, but ended up leaving it in anyway. Maybe I’ll get a cit out of it when they get around to adding it.

    • D-AW says:

      oh hey I see now that you linked to my old post on “impactful”. I had forgotten that “ambiguate” shows up there too.

      • Stan Carey says:

        Yes, I was pleased to see you specifically identify ambiguate as ‘a good candidate’ for inclusion in the OED. If they ever consider it, we can both proffer examples of the word in use.

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