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
I argued in the previous essay that early English usage seemingly supported the notion that equivocation had to do with ambiguous meaning in a single word. However, it has a broader signification, too, as illustrated at the end of the last essay. Then, we find, to the chagrin of contemporary logicians or rhetoricians, that the terms amphiboly and equivocation can be used synonymously. For example, Brown in 1646 can talk about "the fallacie of Aequivocation and Amphibologie," as if they are, indeed, one fallacy. Holland in 1610 spoke of "a crafty Amphibolie or Equivocation." Yet, Fraunce in his 1588 book on logic defines amphiboly as "when the sentence may be turned both wayes, so that a man shall be uncertayne what way to take." Indeed, Hobbes, who wrote a noted rhetorical treatise in addition to his work in political philosophy, could speak of "those fallacies that are joined together. It is either Amphibolia or the doubtfulness of speech." It seems that the English language at the beginning of the 17th century was still roiling in a sea of uncertainty, and one of these uncertainties was reflected in the flexibility of use of amphibology and equivocation.
Amphibology and Ambiguity in English
But if equivocation probably didn't have a fixed meaning in 1600, even though it leaned toward ambiguity in single word, the introduction of amphibology into English is really hindered by study of the OED. Aside from a single reference in Chaucer and Latimer, the first definition of amphiboly in English is given by the OED as "1589 Puttenham Eng. Poesie (Arb.) 267 Such ambiguous terms they call Amphibologia, we call it the ambiguous, or figure of sence incertaine." Thus, it appears that by 1589 the term amphibologia had the general sense in English of "ambiguous." But we have to look at the "1589 Puttenham" more closely. The "Arb" in parentheses actually refers to a nineteenth century edition of Puttenham.
If you go back and check the 1589 text you don't find the word amphibologia at all. In the 1589 text he only speaks of "the ambiguous, or figure of sence incertaine, as if one should say Thomas Tayler saw William Tyler dronke, it is indifferent to thinke either th'one or th'other dronke." A quick check of some of the appearances of ambiguous in English shows that it has several attestations before 1600, making it probably the premier word capturing double meaning or a double sense in English at the time.
Putting it All Together
Thus it seems we have a situation as follows. There is a direct line of continuity from amphiboly in Greek to ambiguus in Latin to ambiguous in English to amphiboly/amphibology in English. To capture the figure from the Greek, they all are "net casting" terms. You don't know where the fish are, so you cast the nets on either side of the boat. Things are doubtful, unclear, uncertain. Puttenham tried to anglicize the concept by introducing sence incertaine in 1589 to capture the reality of doubtful meaning. Ambiguity already existed in English to describe the idea. But there was no indication that this doubtful meaning had to be confined to one word or, for that matter, had to do with an entire sentence.
At the same time the word equivocation, a transliteration of the late Latin aequivoco, which itself was the Latin equivalent of the Greek homologeo, was making its appearance in English. The first associations of equivocation were with individual words, since that is the linguistic field suggested by the Greek. Yet it could both be used synonymously with amphiboly in the 17th century and could be used in the quite "modern" wy as synonymous with a lie by the 18th century.
When the modern logicians came upon this situation they decided, like good logicians that they are, to clean things up. Equivocation would have to do with multiple meanings suggested by one word (even though some of their definitions allow it to stretch beyond one word--are we getting to some ambiguity here?) while amphiboly would have to do with ambiguities of clauses or sentences. But, as luck would have it, amphiboly has just about dropped out of the language today so that it must be frustrating for logicians who really know their history to make this nice distinction and then realize that no one has heard of one of the terms that they are distinguishing! How can they earn their living if there is nothing more to distinguish? It is like lawyers trying to earn their living in a state where people always get along with each other. A real attorney's nightmare.
In the final analysis, I don't really care, now that I think about it, if logicans or others make a nice and neat distinction between amphiboly and equivocation. If they feel it helps them define the world they want to control a little better, that is ok with me. Thus, they can call Groucho Marx's famous line, "Last night I shot an elephant in my pajamas," an amphiboly while the statement, "Since all banks are beside rivers, US Bank must be near the river in this city," will be denominated an equivocation, what really have they accomplished? I think it is much more fruitful to know the history as discussed, and to imagine people throwing their nets overboard and plowing the ground. Leave it to the bright professors to make these distinctions. Then their students will have something to take notes on and something to be quizzed on and we will be a more educated nation. And, in the meantime, the headlines still scream, "Lack of Brains Hinders Research."
Copyright © 2004-2010 William R. Long