Multiple meanings

Published 10:00 am Friday, February 4, 2022

Many months ago, on page 42 of my reading ramble through Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition, I encountered the word amphibology. In it, I discovered a new hobby, and since then, I’ve been collecting amphibologies.

No, they are not frogs and salamanders. Those are amphibians. An amphibology is a sentence or a phrase that can be interpreted in two or more ways. You may already be familiar with the word ambiguous, which means that something can be understood in multiple ways. A color, for example, can be ambiguous if it looks blue or green depending on where you stand. A smile can be ambiguous when it leaves you wondering whether it signifies happiness or scorn. Amphibologies are a particular kind of ambiguity related to the things we say or write.

My collection began when I started playing with words that carried multiple meanings. (A note to those of you who have wondered why my dictionary reading is going so slowly: this is one reason.) To better illustrate the concept, let me share a few of my favorites.

“He charged the batteries.” Suppose the subject of this sentence owned several devices that store and deliver electrical current to power a flashlight or start a car. If he initiated their capacity, or restored it after depletion, you’d say, “He charged the batteries.”

But maybe he was purchasing the devices. If he used a credit card, you’d say, “He charged the batteries.”

On the other hand, perhaps the subject of the sentence was a district attorney responsible for deciding which legal actions to pursue against an alleged perpetrator accused of a lengthy list of crimes. If the DA decided to institute proceedings only for offenses that involved the actual physical harm of others, you’d say, “He charged the batteries.”

Then again, he might have been a military commander leading assaults against artillery units. “He charged the batteries.”

Here’s another example. “Sister Mary Theresa called the number.” Did she initiate a phone conversation? Did she correctly predict the digits required to win a Powerball jackpot? Or is she acting as host for today’s bingo game?

A couple more: “Sally cried when Jane broke the record.” A sad aficionado of vinyl or an emotional athlete, shedding tears of joy (or frustration)? “She went out on a dangerous bluff.” The end of a poker tournament or a risky mountain hike overlooking a river?

I especially like it when I stumble upon amphibologies while reading. In a news article about a court case dealing with office dress codes, I found this one: “Not everyone sees the suit as oppressive.” Because the article discussed workplace disruptions related to the legal proceedings, I thought it referred to the fact that some employees were grumbling about the extra burden the lawsuit created. In their opinion, the suit was oppressive. Others, especially those who favored overturning the dress code requirements and whose day-to-day work was unaffected as the case moved forward, did not see the suit as oppressive.

Then I wondered if the author intended a different meaning. Perhaps the sentence pointed to conflicting views about a particular type of business apparel (the suit). Some employees may have felt oppressed by a requirement to wear one because of its historical associations or the cultural significance of alternate forms of dress. Yet, not everyone saw that garment as oppressive.

I found an amphibology that was more fun in the Scott Pilgrim graphic novels. If you’re not familiar with the story, let me explain that Scott has a wobbly relationship with Ramona. There’s a scene where Ramona sends a text message to Scott’s friend, Kim. Kim relays the message that Ramona “can’t wait for you to come home.” Is Ramona eager for Scott to get home? He hopes so. Or is she unable to wait because she has other things to do? An entirely plausible possibility. I am confident the author, Bryan Lee O’Malley, delivered this conundrum on purpose.

My growing collection of amphibologies is keeping me entertained. It also serves to remind me that my first interpretation of an utterance, especially an excerpt or a quote lacking context, may not be what the speaker intended at all.

KAREN BELLENIR has been writing for The Farmville Herald since 2009. Her book, Happy to Be Here: A Transplant Takes Root in Farmville, Virginia features a compilation of her columns. It is available from PierPress.com. You can contact Karen at kbellenir@PierPress.com.