We often assume that language works best when it is stipulative: when words mean one thing and one thing only. This is the way mathematics functions. Ambiguity has been wrung out of most calculations and computer codes. In the not-so-distant past, the promise of mathematical precision was the firm hope of some linguists. We usually have the same hope in mind when we attempt to “explain” a fact or attitude to another. We want to see our words as duplicates, more or less, of what is in our’s and others’ heads.
There is nothing wrong with this impulse. An Alice-in-Wonderland world is not what most of us imagine as a functional environment. We depend on predictable responses from others. If a person says they are “feeling well,” we assume we know what they mean.
Even so, meaning is almost never a matter of a one-to-one conversion. We know this only too well when apparent certainties give way to the vicissitudes of real life. “I think she is coming,” “It’s not too spicy,” and “The computer glitch is fixed” are all statements from a very deep well of expressions that should come with a permanent asterisk of doubt. What we hear and what has been affirmed are almost never the same thing.
And yet, slippery meanings have many functions. Consider just a few of many:
A certain vagueness can trigger new insights. Breakthroughs in thinking sometimes happen by accident, or the near-accidents triggered by the use of analogies, poor word choice, metaphors, and on-the-fly comparisons. These sideways glances into a problem can yield surprising new understandings.
Astrobiologist Caleb A. Scharf notes that “the simple truth is that scientists themselves constantly make use of analogies, metaphorical devices, and similes. Sometimes it’s the only way to build an intuition for a problem, by relating it to something else. Richard Feynman was perhaps one of the greatest players of this game, turning spinning plates into cutting-edge quantum physics and Nobel prizes.” Notably, all of these rhetorical forms are significantly ambiguous. Push them far enough and they break down into non-sequiturs.
A key advantage of ambiguity is perhaps what the poet John Keats meant in his often quoted letter to his brother in 1817. He said he admired Shakespeare for his “negative capability,” meaning that The Bard was “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Literature and narratives open up to multiple perspectives, making them knowable only in the serendipitous ways they create rainbows of associations within us.
Ambiguity preserves options. We depend on a certain degree of verbal skill to protect ourselves and allow for generous reinterpretation. The calculated spaciousness of a statement gives us room to adjust as a situation requires. It’s an old joke that a politician’s favorite color is plaid. But we often exercise the same kind of linguistic sleight of hand. The response “I’d love to come to the party if I can” preserves a range of options later on. “I’m not sure I understand what you mean” uses a non-committal response to perhaps fend off an overt statement one disagrees with. It’s almost as good as “Maybe.”
Advertisements are strategically ambiguous about what they are selling. An audience member often finds their own way to a message. And a certain indirection can help. A McDonald’s-France ad featuring a closeted gay youth sharing a meal with his dead ends with the tagline, “Come as you are.” A second look suggests that the message is a bit hypocritical. Why can’t the youth be out to the rest of his family? Perhaps a casual viewer only sees the ad’s pitch for inclusivity.
Ambiguity lets us in. Music, poetry, and unresolved third acts leave room for audiences to hear or see what they need. Music carries the possibilities of multiple meanings even further. What did Dmitri Shostakovich mean by the crude and blunt marches embedded in the First Movement of his Fifth Symphony? Just a modernist impulse? A taunt to authorities who wanted a more “Soviet” style from him? A garish state of his own bouts of despair? Who knows? Or try to identify the emotional thread in a A Chorus Line’s big anthem, “What I Did for Love.” Is the Hamlisch/Kleban song a simple expression of commitment to the precarious life of a Broadway dancer? A “no regrets” act of defiance over a committed relationship that failed? Or a defiant affirmation of same sex love, when it carried a heavier social stigma? We hear what we need to hear.
Music can be partly understood in terms of the mathematics of tonality. But the emotional results of it and all the arts take us in a totally different direction: to myriad evocations of feeling made possible by their welcome ambiguities.