The Compulsive Copyeditor

August 30, 2011

The Ambiguity of Important Words

Filed under: English is weird,vocabulary — amba12 @ 2:23 pm

. . . in English, that is.  It’s recently grabbed my attention that English perhaps uniquely leaves its most important words—such as love, work, belief—ambiguous and multivalent.  For example, Greek distinguishes between eros, agape, and philia, and maybe even more, but we use “love” for all three.  Over at Ron Fisher’s new blog The End of Work, we’ve had disagreements that have led to stimulating discussions, because we are using the word “work” simultaneously in so many different senses: effort, drudgery, energy expenditure, employment, calling (“your life’s work”), and more.  And now, in the comments at Ambiance, starting here and resuming here, I’m getting embroiled in a similar discussion about the word “belief.”

How to explain this quality of English?  It’s clear why we don’t have as many words for snow as Eskimos—we lack life-or-death need for such distinctions (and therefore, perhaps, aesthetic delight in them)—but the same cannot be said of love, work, or belief, which, in their many permutations, permeate our entire lives.  Is this a failing of English or, on some deep level, a deliberate choice?  If there is danger and confusion in this ambiguity, there’s also tremendous generative power (look how it can make us rack our brains! what’s more creative—and harder work!—than thinking about things there aren’t ready-made words for?), and also a recognition of deep, if conflicted, relationships among the many phenomena we call love . . . or work . . . or belief.

I would appreciate input from people with knowledge of other languages.  Is English really so unique in this?  If so, is it part of what has made English so hardy and adaptable?

(In Spanish, “I love you” in the romantic sense is often stated, not “Te amo” but “Te quiero”—literally, “I want you.” That at least seems honest!)


  1. So sorry about the linky mess!! I’ve been writing so much in comments, where you still have to write out the HTML (something I got to be very adept at, and to enjoy, in the early days of AmbivaBlog), that I forgot to use WYSIWYG.

    Comment by amba (Annie Gottlieb) — August 30, 2011 @ 2:33 pm | Reply

  2. (1) If you pick up any foreign language dictionary, you will see the greatest number of entries for the most commonly used words like to do, to have, to be, etc.

    (2) As someone who looked closely at a few romance languages, it strikes me that they mainly differ in their most commonly used verbs (the so-called irregular verbs). So Italian fare “to do” is completely irregular and so is avere, “to have.” Spanish uses instead hacer and tener, which are also irregular. I see similar patterns comparing Dutch to German. Except for the irregular verbs, the languages resemble each other in systematic predictable ways, mainly orthographic spelling changes. Frequency of use seems to lead to more mutations of a word.

    (3) The fact that we can still distinguish (in English) concepts like the different kinds of love and work using the same word tells me that we’ve not lost any conceptual richness–just that we’re being economical with the words. English seems to be a very advanced language in terms of context vs. meaning.

    Comment by chickelit — August 30, 2011 @ 4:26 pm | Reply

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