Q: People seem to use “ambivalent” to mean not feel strongly about something, as in “I’m ambivalent about spinach.” But I was taught that it meant having strong feelings both for and against something, as in “I’m ambivalent about riding horses—I like riding but I hate saddle sores.” Can you shed some light?
A: The adjective “ambivalent” and the noun it came from, “ambivalence,” were borrowed a century ago from German psychiatric terminology.
But over the years, as the words moved into literary and general usage, they outgrew their original meanings. So it’s no surprise that the meanings are now often less than clear.
Today, someone who’s “ambivalent” can either (1) have conflicting or uncertain feelings about a single thing; or (2) be uncertain about choosing between two conflicting things. Those, more or less, are the meanings recognized in standard dictionaries.
We’ve noticed that people occasionally use “ambivalent” when they mean they don’t care. But if they simply lack interest in a subject—say, spinach—then we would call them “indifferent,” not “ambivalent.”
Your example about horseback riding falls under meaning No. 1, since it involves conflicting attitudes toward a single subject.
An illustration of meaning No. 2 would be indecision about choosing between two opposing things—like using an English versus a Western-style saddle.
The noun “ambivalence” (or “ambivalency” in early usage), came into English before the adjective.
As a psychological term, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “ambivalence” originally meant “the coexistence in one person of contradictory emotions or attitudes (as love and hatred) towards a person or thing.”
The OED’s earliest citation is from the December 1912 issue of the Lancet, the British medical journal:
“ ‘Ambivalency,’ a condition which gives to the same idea two contrary feeling-tones and invests the same thought simultaneously with both a positive and a negative character.”
But “in literary and general works,” the OED says, “ambivalence” has taken on diverse meanings, including “a balance or combination or coexistence of opposites,” and “oscillation, fluctuation, variability.”
Here’s one example of these wider (and vaguer) meanings, which Oxford quotes from a 1953 issue of the Times Literary Supplement:
“What social anthropologists call ‘plural belonging,’ what literary critics call ambivalence of attitude, and what the proverb calls having your cake and eating it, is a common human phenomenon.”
The adjective “ambivalent” has had a similar evolution.
It meant “entertaining contradictory emotions (as love and hatred) towards the same person or thing” when first recorded in English in a 1916 translation from a paper on analytical psychology by Carl Jung, according to the OED.
But “ambivalent” has also came to mean “equivocal,” or “acting on or arguing for sometimes one and sometimes the other of two opposites,” Oxford says.
Here are OED citations that exemplify both uses of “ambivalent.” The first illustrates conflicting feelings about one thing, the next a hesitation between two conflicting things:
“A second case where the falsehoods were … the result of ambivalent desire for and fear of the erotic life.” (From Phyllis M. Blanchard’s book The Adolescent Girl: A Study From the Psychoanalytic Viewpoint, first published in 1920.)
“Our deeper urges are strangely ambivalent, ready to spend themselves on love or hate, altruism or destruction.” (From a 1955 issue of the Listener, the former BBC magazine.)
As we mentioned, the source of these English words is German: the noun ambivalenz. It was coined by the Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler and first appeared in a long essay of his, published in the journal Psychiatrisch-Neurologisch Wochenschrift in 1910-11.
Bleuler formed ambivalenz from Latin elements, the prefix ambi– (around, both, or in two ways) and valentia (power, strength).
The new word was modeled, according to the OED, after “equivalence,” which has the etymological sense “equal in value or strength.”
It was Bleuler, by the way, who redefined the mental illness “dementia praecox” and renamed it schizophrenie (“schizophrenia”) in 1908.
He also coined the term autismus (“autism”) in 1910, but early on it had a different meaning (self-absorption) than it does in modern medicine.