Just words: ambiguity

Hey, Friend,
Middle of a work day. I am using my lunch break to write. Thank you for your comment, Chris, on my previous post on the word herd immunity. Sitting about 150 miles away from your home, I can picture your schedule (I might pick up on this later) and imagine the conversation with your son. The marvels of reading and writing…

The post heading gives it away: what caught my eye was: “It boils down to a coping mechanism for a yawning lack of ambiguity tolerance among us humans.” Fancy word that. Let me bounce it around a little.

I believe you are right. We are always trying to cope with ambiguity. We like to know what this virus is—exactly. What does it do the body, to my body, should I get infected? When will we get back to normal? On November 11? Or on December 14? And what does normal mean, anyway? And why did you throw another Latin word into my immunity?

So, I looked it up: ambiguity. It’s old. It can be traced back to Proto-Indo-European, the reconstructed ancestor of all Indo-European languages, such as English, German, Latin, Spanish, Persian, Sanskrit, Urdu, … Linguists hypothesize that PIE was spoken in the third millennium BC, 5000 years ago.
*ambhi (around) and *ag (to drive, to move)
In Latin, the word referred to “double meaning” already.

So, I guess even 5000 years ago, the nomads had to deal with unsteady things, that kept moving, struggled with deriving one meaning from the many they saw, and encountered phenomena of a doubtful or uncertain nature. So much so that they probably had a word for it.

5000 years. And we are still struggling and coping with ambiguity. Why? It’s everywhere. As they say: Words have more than one meaning. (Linguists call this phenomenon polysemy. And yes, it is pretty much all words.) Most phenomena in nature and in society are complex; development and processes in general are often nonlinear; each one of us can take a different perspective, develop a different — often only partial — understanding. Ambiguous.

So, what are we going to do with our lack of ambiguity tolerance? Tolerate it more? Eliminate ambiguity as drastically as we can? Struggle with it from time to time over the next 5000 years?

Or is there another way? What do you think?

As always, hanging in there and thinking of you (plural … again!)


3 thoughts on “Just words: ambiguity

  1. Hi back at ya,

    My lunch break just ended, and though I’m back on the clock, I’m taking just a few minutes to give you a quick reply, with the prospect of a longer one later, when I have less time ;-). One caveat: don’t tell my boss that I’m doing this while on the institutional dime.

    I think you’re quite right to problematize my pointing to a lack of ambiguity tolerance as the root of much of people’s current struggles with the ripple effects of the pandemic. So, rather than just acknowledge that you have made a good point, I’m going to muddy the waters even a bit more.

    What if it isn’t really the problem with ambiguous phenomena per se, but rather with ambiguous reactions to them? So, what about loci of control? Maybe the bigger challenge lies in people’s difficulty in correctly identifying where the locus of control for phenomena and their reactions to them really lie? Just a thought, but let’s add another element to it. Attribution theory. If we can accept that each person is not, in reality, a blank slate, and so does not start every reactionary process from some pristine, idyllic null state, then we can also entertain the idea that people have preferred (learned or inherent… question for another day) response patterns. Some see their response to things as completely within their control (internal locus), and others see their responses as not completely, or eve mostly, within their control (external locus).

    Further yet, it depends on the perceived value (e.g. positive or negative) of the phenomenon and its resulting conditions. If they are seen as generally positive (like being reassured that it is now “safe” enough to go to the bar and have a fun time gregariously imbibing alcohol with other humans) attribution theory might suggest that people will see that as coming from within themselves, and so will be less likely to be rebellious, suspicious, and/or defensive about it. If, on the other hand, the phenomena and their resulting conditions (like a pandemic and the resulting imposed restrictions) are perceived as generally negative, then some, or even many, folks might attribute them to external forces, and therefore will be more likely to resist.

    Or, ya know, because sometimes stuff be hard, right? That’s the Brown Corollary of 2020. It’s a nascent theoretical model, but some (lots of people actually!) say it has promise like they’ve never seen…

    Until later,



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s