Invigilant et al.
Property Terms I
Property Terms II
Property Terms III
Shining Words I
Shining Words II
Rhetorical Devices I
Rhetorical Devices II
Rhetorical Devices III
Rhetorical Devices IV
Maxims of Equity I
Maxims of Equity II
Maxims of Equity III
Bill Long 11/15/04
Being Clear About Ambiguity
So, let's meet the players in the world of ambiguity. At point guard, 6-2 out of Syracuse, is amphibology, also known as amphiboly. At shooting guard is ambiguity, a Latin term of interesting extraction. In the middle at 7-0 from Arizona is equivocation, who can turn either way with equal ease. At power forward is homonomia, one of the up and coming Greek stars in the league. Finally, at small forward is tautologia, who doesn't get too much playing time and is usually ignored by the flashier players.
I have to confess, I love the root meaning of amphiboly. In ancient Greek an amphiboleus was a fisherman and an amphibole was the casting of a fishing net. The prefix amphi means "on both sides," while "boleo" means to throw, and so we have a vivid word picture, don't we? A fisherman makes his living by throwing his nets on both sides of the boat. But then, Plato could use the term in a metaphorical sense to suggest something that is doubtful. Again, this makes sense. When you throw the nets over both sides of the boat, you really don't know which net, if either, will catch fish. Amphiboly takes on the general sense of "ambiguity" in Aristotle and a later handbook of rhetoric, so that by the time you reach the beginning of our era the fishing connotation is subordinated to the rhetorical meaning. Ok, I can deal with this.
Latin, which copies most things Greek in philosophical and rhetorical studies, took over amphiboly in a rather fascinating way. It took it over as amphibolia in a few rhetorical treatises, especially Cicero and Quintilian, but the sound of amphibolia must have grated in Latin ears and they decided to invent a term of their own, ambiguus. The reason ambiguus, which means "on which one's mind is not made up, unsettled, undecided, doubtful," was developed is that both the sound and the concept of amphiboly ring strange. Latin people just didn't fish as much as Greeks. But they did cultivate land. Their farms were legendary for fertility. And, what is the root meaning of ambiguus? "To plow around," naturally (though the Latin verb ago has 44 significations, according to the OLD). Thus, the preferred Latin term to capture the Greek concept of amphiboly is ambiguus.
At this point in the development of language there is no indication of any difference between lexical or grammatical usage or one word or several words. All we have are farmers and fishermen trying to earn a living, who bequeath to the rhetoricians and philosophers words from their trade to express the chanciness or "doubleness" or "ambiguities" of life.
Moving Along to Others
Classical Latin knows no term that is translated into English as equivocate/equivocation. But we have another Grek term that should be introduced at this point that fits the bill. Homonymeo is a word meaning "to have the same name with something." We have the word "homonym" in English and it means words that sound the same but have different meanings. Aristotle used homonymeo to suggest ambiguity or an equivocal sense, and the phrase "kath' homonymian" means "equivocally." In Aristotle's logical vocabularly homonymia means something that has the same name only with "different natures and definitions." Ah, now we are beginning to see how people in our day might get the impression that equivocation only refers to a single word while amphiboly relates to ambiguities in sentences or clauses. But it is not so simple, and we must continue our journey.*
[*We need to introduce, and discard, tautology very briefly. I introduce it only because the OED says, somewhat surprisingly, under its definition of amphibology, that it is from the Gr.- logia speech, by form-assoc. with tautologia, etc. Huh? Maybe I don't understand all the OED shorthand, but in what way is amphibology associated with tautologia? Tautology is a Greek word which is actually three Greek words meaning "to say the same thing" (logos, ta, autos) and the verb tautologeo is used in Polybius and others to mean "repeat what has been said." Actually the word aequivoco, introduced into later Latin and coming into English as "equivocate," means "to say the same thing." So it seems that equivocate, not amphibology, is the direct equivalent of tautology. Unless, however, amphibology and equivocation are identical, which the modern world wants to deny. But this is enough on this.]
Arriving at the Sceptered Isle
So we come to English. The question I want to pose is whether the English language several centuries ago seemed to know a distinction between amphiboly/amphibology and equivocation that is congruent with the distinction in modern rhetoric and logic. There are some promising indications that the distinction was made. For example, as early as the 15th century an author could say, "The oon [one] of theyme is callede Tilis, and that the other is callede Tile, lest equivocacion of the names deceyve hym." In other words, there is very early attestation for equivocation having to do with ambiguity in the meaning of a single world. This is confimed by an early 17th century usage: "Playing upon the aequivocation or double sense of the world Dialis."
But then we run into difficulties. The difficulties are of two types: using equivocate and amphibole interchangeably and then using equivocate in a much more general sense, almost as synonymous with a lie. Let's close this essay with an example of the latter. In Richardson's famous Pamela (1741), usually referred to as the first modern English novel, a character says, in language reminiscent of Pascal's Pensees, "You won't tell a downright fib for the world; but for equivocation! no jesuit ever went beyond you." Here the word equivocation has a delightfully general significance, and we can almost hear Bill Clinton echoing in the deep background.
Copyright © 2004-2010 William R. Long