Palin and Lalia
Theological Terms I
Theological Terms II
Theol. Terms III
Noso and Noce/Nocu
Milton, Book I (PL)
Oo and Ovi
Labors of Hercules I
Oblectation et al.
Dissimulare et al.
Acroama et al.
Tetrous et al.
Commeate et al.
Obsolete et al.
Subtle et al. I
Hesitate et al. (Ovid)
Excoriate et al. I
Excoriate et al. II
Ambi--A Useful Root to Know
Bill Long 11/21/07
If you know that the Latin prefix "ambi" means "both, on both sides, around," you have almost all you know to make a good beginning with this prefix. It is used in technical scientific language, as when ambiciliate means, in ichthyology, "having the scales on both sides of the body minutely toothed along the edges." The word cilia, by the way, is the common Latin word for "hair" or "eyelash," even though it doesn't provide the inspiration for many English words. But far more interesting to me are the English words beginning with "ambi" such as ambiguous, ambition, ambivalent, ambit, ambidextrous and ambiloquous. Let's give each of these words their 15 seconds of fame.
I think this was one of the biggest words I learned at an early age. I recall that there was a kid in third grade who was able to use his right and left arm equally well. Someone told me that such a person was ambidextrous (though in third grade it sounded more like ambadextrus to me). I thought is was so cool to have a long word to describe what my friend could do, that I vowed always to remember the word. And, we have words in English that build off that one: ambidexterity is the property of being able to use both hands alike; ambidextrously is doing something equally well with both hands, etc. A secondary meaning of ambidextrous suggests that it took on a negative connotation--"in a bad sense: Double-dealing." This is illustrated in Sterne's 1769 quotation: "A little dirty, pimping, pettifogging, ambidextrous fellow."
But if you take apart the word, you have "ambi"--on both sides, and "dexter"--right-handed. Therefore, an ambidextrous person has "two right hands." I wonder if the left-handed league has anything to say about this? Interestingly, for a while in English we had two words to express the opposite thought. Ambisinistrous or ambilevous meant "having two left hands" or, in other words, clumsy. An 1863 quotation says, "In wedlock, he [The Prince of Wales]..was certainly more than ambi-sinistrous." I suppose if you dropped the word "more" you could have said the same in 1995. You probably know (but if not I will tell you), that our word sinister in English, which means "dishonest, unfair; not straightforward, underhanded," comes from the Latin sinister, meaning "left-handed." Now I really think that left-handed people ought to lobby for change in our language.
While we are at it, let's resurrect a word that is really pretty rare in English--ambisextrous. I don't think you even need a definition....
Ambient, which means "lying around, encircling, encompassing," derives from the words "ambi" and "ire," which means "to go." Thus, the ambience of the moment is what "encircles" you at the time. The word ambient has received a jolt of new life in the last 30 or so years with the development of "sensurround" and other sources of "surrounding" speaker sound. But ambient noise or ambient sound is used rather generally to refer to any atmospheric sound occurring naturally or randomly in a particular environment. Whenever I hear the word ambient, I hear in my mind the phrase, "whatever goes around..." We also have the word circumambient in English, which may be a bit of a tautology, but there you have it. By the way, the word tautology comes originally from the Greek (through Latin) and means a repetition of the same thing. Logos in Greek is "word" or "matter" or "thing," autos is "same" and t-autos means "the same."
An ambit is, true to form, a "going around" or "circuit" or "circumference." A synonym for ambit is the space surrounding a house or castle, which may also be referred to as a "verge." One could speak of being "within the verge or ambit of the King's presence." That is great to know--not many know that verge meant not only "penis" (the first meaning--the Latin virga means "rod" or "wand") but also the area extending to a distance of 12 miles arond the King's court. But ambit also can be used in a figurative sense to express the sphere of words, actions or thought, as in "Misconception as to the ambit of the legislation."
The prefix ambi is sufficiently close to the Latin ambulare, "to walk," as to have created one sense of the word ambit that seems to be closer to ambulate than ambi. A 1398 quotation has: "Ambitus is a space bytwene place and hous of neighbours of two fote brode and an halfe ordeyned for a waye." Such an ambit might "surround" a house but it really is a way or pathway between houses.
Once we understand ambit, we are ready to understand ambition. It means a "going around" or a "going around to canvass for votes." Such a person is someone who has an "eager desire for honor" and who might also be prone to "ostentation" or "pomp." Even though the original use of ambition in English had to do with our current meaning (ardent desire to rise to high position), I like the original Latin meaning of canvassing votes. Such a person who "goes around" to try to get support for a measure or him/herself is certainly one who is ambitious. The next time I see a political candidate, or even religious proselytizer, at the doorstep, I think I will give them a little lesson in Latin before I let them speak.
One more thing before I leave this word. The OED tells us that ambition has been used both as a noun and verb in the English language. The verb, meaning "to desire strongly," as in the sentence "The Fenian leaders ambitioned not the extinction of landlordism, but rather the reconciliation of landlords and tenants" is no longer used. But here is a precedent for turning nouns to verbs in our language which is also happening today ("task" as verb is one of the latest examples). The language grows, but, in my experience, it mostly shrinks.
Again, the word picture suggested by ambiguous ought to help fix this word deeply in our mind. It is taken from ambi and agere, which means to "drive" or "lead." Thus, something ambiguous "drives in two directions." The earliest Latin meaning is "admitting more than one interpretation" or "of double meaning." Another good Latin-derived word to describe the same is "equivocal," which means "of equal voice." I suppose that having two interpretations is similar enough to having "equal" interpretations that ambiguous and equivocal can mean the same thing--even though there is probably some pedant out there who will try to distinguish between the two. Puttenham, who wrote one of the first rhetorical handbooks in English, gave this example of ambiguity from 1589: "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'e one or th'other dronke." [Ah, we have here the original meaning of indifferent, which is "without difference" rather than "unmoved, careless, apathetic" of today].
Ambivalent and Ambiloquous
Let's finish this essay by brief treatment of these, one of which is familar and one not. Ambiloquous means pretty much the same as ambiguous, but it is more precise to say it is "using ambiguous and doubtful expressions." Thus, instead of saying that a person is a 'person who speaks ambiguously,' we might just say s/he is ambiloquous. Something ambivalent is, literally, "having either or both of two contrary or parallel values, qualities, or meanings." The Latin verb valeo means "to value" or "to be worth." The meaning most familiar to us today, however, is "entertaining contradictory emotions (as love and hatred) toward the same person or thing." What is striking to me, however, is that though the other "ambi"-words are of long history, originating as early as the 14th century, ambivalen/ambivalency is a creation of 20th century psychology, appearing for the first time in just prior to WWI.
Spend time on roots and the words which flow from the roots. You will never regret it.
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long