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A History of Ambiguity$
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Anthony Ossa-Richardson

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780691167954

Published to Princeton Scholarship Online: January 2020

DOI: 10.23943/princeton/9780691167954.001.0001

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Collusion and Delusion

Collusion and Delusion

(p.99) Chapter Three. Collusion and Delusion
A History of Ambiguity

Anthony Ossa-Richardson

Princeton University Press

This chapter focuses on the notion of artificial ambiguity, understood at the level of speech-acts, which classical and early modern scholars usually conceived of either as puns—that is, ambiguities that are not really ambiguous—or as equivocations—ambiguities engineered to deceive. Then as now, wits prided themselves on their facility with double meanings, and chief among these was Cicero. The witty ambiguity, exemplified in the puns of Cicero, seemed to critics very different to the fraudulent ambiguity, embodied in the language of Satan, or in Jesuitical equivocation: the one was joyous and elegant, giving pleasure and reinforcing social bonds, whereas the other, undermining trust and moral security, begat sin after sin. However, they were only ever two ends of the same wand, and their proximity could bring delight to the equivocation or discredit to the pun. The chapter then analyses that paradox, first modelling the ambiguity in the classical witticism and then considering its relation to the figure of the hypocrite in early modern poetry and theology. It also evaluates the sixteenth-century argument over the legitimacy of equivocation and mental reservation.

Keywords:   artificial ambiguity, puns, equivocations, double meanings, Cicero, witty ambiguity, fraudulent ambiguity, classical witticism, hypocrite, mental reservation

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