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Oct 9, 2000
This week's theme
Words with ambigrams

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ambiguity (am-bi-GYOO-i-tee) noun

1. Doubtfulness or uncertainty as regards interpretation.

2. Something of doubtful meaning.

[From Latin ambiguus, uncertain, from ambigere, to go about : ambi-, around + agere, to drive.]

Ambiguity is one of a handful of English words whose meaning describes itself. In other words, "Ambiguity" is ambiguous. It refers, on the one hand, to a situation of imprecision, of obscurity, because more than one interpretation is possible. On the other hand, something ambiguous can be understood perfectly well - but from more than one point of view.

We are amused at the fable of the elephant and the six blind men, each of whom understood the elephant to be a very different animal. But we seem to lose that good-natured perspective just in time to assume that our own point of view on the world is more accurate than that of many of the other human beings on the planet. We avoid ambiguity as much as possible, feeling threatened that it may expose our own point of view as merely an option.

But we should embrace ambiguity. After all, each of our eyes sees a slightly different, two-dimensional, view of reality. Those two images are synthesized by the brain into a single three-dimensional image, which we think of as "more real" than a 2-D view. The more points of view we are able to see, the more clearly we understand the world around us. Reality is ambiguous. Ambiguity is synthesis.

I like to think that looking at everything - not only words - from alternate points of view, can enhance our understanding of the world around us.

Ambigrams are words that can be read from more than one point of view. I have been creating ambigrams as visual meditations on language--as commercial graphics and as fine art pieces--for almost thirty years. Anu has invited me to share my unique point of view on language with his A.Word.A.Day audience. I certainly appreciate this opportunity. I hope you will enjoy looking at words in this new way and find it both entertaining and thought-provoking.

Each day this week, your AWAD regular mail will consist of an ambigram, a paragraph or so about a particular word, exploring some unorthodox points of view regarding its meaning. As it really makes more sense to view the ambigram first, and in a format that allows you to invert it, I suggest that you print it out, so you can enjoy its symmetry and reversibility before and while you read. -John Langdon (wordplay@epix.net)

(This week's Guest Wordsmith, John Langdon, teaches in the College of Design Arts at Drexel University in Philadelphia. For more information on ambigrams visit his website.)


All sunshine makes a desert. -Arabic proverb

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