By Wade Maki
“Who is on first? Yes, he is.” The classic comedy bit plays on ambiguity in language. In this case the ambiguity is just the unfortunate result of the situation (people named “Who” and “What” are difficult to talk about). A great many problems are caused by ambiguous language in which two or more meanings may be found in the same wording. Vast amounts of philosophical disputes revolve around language disputes. What exactly did you mean by X?
Do you believe in God? This seems a simple question, but what does it mean to “believe” in something? Does belief entail: that it is true, that it is likely true, that it is possibly true, that I just hope it true, or even that I just want to be true? The word is unclear and any question involving it invites answers aimed at one of these standards leaving great possibility for confusion between questioner and answerer.
Sometimes ambiguous language is just the unintended result of vague expression. In other cases it results from careless expression. As evidence, here is how a team of students recently reported on a conflict between two companies:
“Throughout the process, this firm created monetary problems for their company explaining why they decided not to provide their services to them.”
While the team knew to what the words “this, their, they, and them,” applied, there was no way for the reader to decipher this meaning given that there were at least two subjects that each word could refer to.
In other cases ambiguous language is a deliberate tool to deceive. Examples from politics and advertising are numerous where, by design, language is selected because it has dual meanings one, which is technically true, and the other which isn’t true but the speaker hopes the listener will accept as true. President Clinton’s famous legal defense about perjury included the curious claim “it depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is”. You know language is in trouble when “is” becomes ambiguous.
Rather than focus on political ambiguity in language, a subject deserving of its own post, consider how advertisers utilize it. Below are two labels from the same product line called “ecosense” (in two shades of green). When you see this what do you think of? Once you’ve answered the question read the small print at the bottom. Then look at the second version, which represents the updated advertising language. Notice how they changed the small print to be even more ambiguous than the first.
What is going on with these ads is called “greenwashing” whereby an attempt is made to convey an environmental product when, in fact, it is not an environmental product. In the examples above the advertiser plays on both the ambiguity of the phrase “ecosense” and of the color green. The eco in ecosense could mean ecological and/or economical just as the green could mean environmentally friendly and/or affordable. As the small print indicates in the first ad (which was the original label) only the economical portions are true. However, since the product would sell better if people thought it was environmental this original small print was altered to be more ambiguous. Now it tells you that ecosense means economical sense it leaves an open question as to the environmental impact of the product. People who don’t read the small print (a significant number) would reasonably conclude that the product was environmentally friendly and even those who read the second label may reach that same conclusion.
Thus far the examples have involved language which could have two or more meanings. There is another form of ambiguity in language where meanings are smuggled into language without actually being said. What comes to mind when I tell you Jones is an environmentalist? For many people the word itself brings with it images of hippies, tree huggers, people diving atop whales to save them from harpoons, Prius owners, or a host of other behaviors. As a result a lot of people say “I’m not an environmentalist” before adding, “but I care about the environment.” This is as logical as the woman who says: “I believe in equal rights, but I’m not a feminist.”
Confusions in such cases come not from the words themselves, but from outside ideas the listener associates with the words. Thus, most conservatives don’t call themselves “environmentalists” as that says SUV burning, un-showered, neo-hippie. Instead, conservatives are more likely to use the term “conservationist”. What is the difference? Not a whole lot if you only look at the words and know that both seek to protect parks, air, water, and nature. Of course the term conservationist also carries additional connotations to some listeners such as, in full Teddy Roosevelt tradition, enjoying nature by using an elephant gun to blow away every creature in the natural world for the trophy wall.
A lot of conflict, confusion, and deception occurs because of ambiguity in either the meaning of language or the smuggling in of additional notions. What one person says can be innocent to one listener but racist/homophobic/offensive to others. The solution isn’t easy. Being aware of ambiguity and smuggled notions goes a long way, but not far enough. If you were running for president and want to protect parks, air, water, and nature what word do you use? If environmentalist and conservationist each scare a third of America what word do you use? This helps explain the tortured use of language in politics.