After reviewing your work on etymologies/word origins, I’ve decided I’m beginning a new weekly feature. This feature will highlight a word and its origins, and with any luck it will give us a broader understanding of the language we live within.
So this week’s word is AMBIGUOUS, unclear or vague.
Ambiguous comes from Late Medieval Latin. We have evidence of a form ambiguitatem and ambiguus that was recorded c. 1400 (c. stands for circa, which is Latin for around, about). Medieval Latin is not the Latin we learn in school today. In schools we primarily study Latin from the “Golden Age” of Latin literature which extended roughly from 100 BCE to 200 CE or 100 BC to AD 200*. We consider this “pure” Latin; but you already know that language changes all the time, so any sense of “purity” just happens to be the fashion of the day. We’ve just inherited the prejudices of Renaissance scholars.
Regardless, Latin continued to be used and to be changed throughout the centuries. The Roman Empire eventually disintegrated as a political entity into the smaller states that we associate with Europe. During this process the old regime and its system of schools became defunct. But Roman institutions lived on in the form of the Roman Catholic Church. The church became the institution invested with preserving culture, education, literacy. The church developed an entire body of law called canon law. Many of the innovations of Medieval Latin developed out of the changing fashions of church jurisprudence.
Ambigutatem seems to come from this. It is based on the verb ambigere “to wander around, meander.” The root, agere means “to drive” and ambi- technically means “both,” but in context can be understood to mean “around.” So it literally means to walk around in both directions. Clearly, you can understand the need for clarity in legal proceedings. And the church also had an ancient ritual of consecrating the ground of a newly built church by circling the building while reciting prayers.
Ambiguous remarks are not looked on kindly by lawyers and English teachers, but most of us use ambiguity either for our own defense or for a little fun. Ambiguity occurs when a phrase has two or more possible interpretations: “When I told Pedro that I shot an elephant in my pajamas, he asked how an elephant got into my pajamas” (thank you, Groucho Marx). Now “Ambiguous” adorns many a young skater’s T-shirt and headgear, and when I ask them what does that mean, they give me a querulous look and fittingly respond, “I don’t know.” It always brings a smile to my face.
The first recorded use of “ambiguous” in English was by Sir Thomas Wyatt in 1528. Wyatt, a man of great learning, and not limited artistry captured the ambiguous feelings of a man past his prime in his canonized poem: “The Flee From Me” (just sound out the words, it will make sense):
They Fle From Me
They fle from me, that sometyme did me seke
With naked fote, stalking in my chambre.
I have seen theirn gentill, tame, and meke,
That nowe are wyld, and do not remembre
That sometyme they put theimself in daunger
To take bred at my hand; and nowe they raunge
Besely seking with a continuell chaunge.
Thancked be fortune, it hath ben othrewise
Twenty tymes better; but ons, in speciall,
In thyn arraye, after a pleasaunt gyse,
When her lose gowne from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her armes long and small,
Therewith all swetely did me kysse,
And softely saide: “Dere hert, howe like you this?”
It was no dreme: I lay brode waking.
But all is torned, thorough my gentilnes,
Into a straunge fasshion of forsaking;
And I have leve to goo of her goodness,
And she also to use new fangilnes:
But syns that I so kyndely am served,
I would fain knowe what she hath deserved.
If you would like a little analysis of Wyatt’s language go here: http://www.geocities.com/yskretz/wyattlevay.html.
* CE stands for Common Era, BCE for Before the Common Era. They are non-religious way of referring to the more familiar BC, Before Christ and AD, Anno Domini, that we associate with the calendars of the West.