ambiguous and ambivalent


I was listening to the radio in the car and following with interest the pleasantly spoken man who was giving a thoughtful analysis of the political scene, when he grabbed my attention by commenting that he was feeling ambiguous about the election in Zimbabwe.

He meant ambivalent. Directions, indications, meanings can all be ambiguous when we can’t tell whether they mean one thing or the other. Only people can feel ambivalent when they can’t decide which of two options they prefer.

Ambiguous and ambivalent share the Latin prefix ambi- meaning  ‘in two ways’ but they differ in the second word element. Ambiguous has ambi- combined with the Latin agere meaning ‘to drive or lead’,  so something that is ambiguous is driving us in two different directions. Ambivalent is a much more recent word, being coined in German as part of psychiatric specialist jargon of the early 1900s.  Ambivalence was modelled on equivalence which meant a state or condition of equalness. Therefore ambivalence meant a state or condition in which two contradictory feelings or attitudes are held at the same time.  

The term ambivalent had a specific meaning in psychiatry but spread into general use. It seems surprising that we didn’t have a word for this state of mind before since it occurs quite commonly.  I suppose we had other ways of expressing it. The phrase to be in two minds, for example, precedes ambivalent, and the phrase to have half a mind to do something is a couple of centuries older. In fact, mind seems to have been worked heavily with phrases like have a mind, or a good mind, or a great mind to do something.