The UVic Writer's Guide

 


Ambiguity


Although in normal usage "ambiguity" means faulty expression through imprecision in the choice of words, in literary criticism ambiguity refers to the exploitation for artistic purposes of language which has multiple meanings (see also irony, and allegory).

In Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida (1601-02) the hero longs to be taken to Cressida and begs the go-between Pandarus, "be thou my Charon" (the ferryman of the dead). Although Troilus' primary meaning is that Pandarus will convey him to Cressida, the reader can also interpret his words as an ironic or subconscious request for death, or for the "little death" of sexual fulfillment.

A portmanteau word is a particular type of ambiguity, in which two words and their meanings are joined together in a new word combining both meanings. The term was first coined by Lewis Carrol in Through the Looking Glass (1871), in which the character Humpty Dumpty explains that the word "slithy" means "lithe and slimy."

Modern critics often take advantage of the density of meaning available in a portmanteau word; an important example is Jacques Derrida's coinage diffˇrance, which is a play on two related French words which mean respectively to differ and to postpone; thus he is able to encapsulate his argument that language depends on the interplay of differences between words in such a way that meaning is indefinitely postponed and inevitably indeterminate. (See also pun and indeterminacy .)


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Copyright, The Department of English, University of Victoria, 1995
This page updated September 23, 1995