Equivocal – a confusing word

by Jakub Marian

Tip: See my list of the Most Common Mistakes in English. It will teach you how to avoid mis­takes with com­mas, pre­pos­i­tions, ir­reg­u­lar verbs, and much more (PDF Version).

The word “equivocal” looks like “equally vocal”, and, surprise, surprise, it does come from Latin aequivocus, meaning “of equal voice” or “of equal significance”. So, when you say “the results of the poll were equivocal”, it should mean that all people agreed with each other, shouldn’t it? Wrong!

I consider equivocal to be one of the most confusing English words. People who see this word for the first time (and aren’t familiar with it from their mother tongue) virtually always assume it means “unified, saying the same”, but the phrase “of equal significance” in the meanings given above is the key here. The word expresses the idea of “saying several different things, all of which are of equal significance”. More precisely:

equivocal = ambiguous, unclear, having several possible interpretations

So, when you say

The results of the poll were equivocal.

it means

The results of the poll were unclear, i.e. it was not clear how to interpret the results (for example, as in a situation where there is no clear winner).

Speakers of a Romance language have an inherent advantage because a word similar to “equivocal” likely exists in their mother tongue as well (and is similarly confusing to learners of Romance languages as it is to learners of English).

By the way, if you haven’t read my guide on how to avoid the most common mistakes in English, make sure to check it out; it deals with similar topics.

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