Clearly ambiguous

Right In The Middle

One of my favourite short stories is an old Indian tale. It tells of two men who were good friends. One of them fell seriously ill. When he realised that his days were numbered, he called his friend and committed his young son into his care. His written instructions regarding his property said, “When he comes of age, give him what you want and keep the rest”.

Soon after this the man died. The friend looked after the son. When he reached adulthood, the young man asked for his share. The friend was now overtaken by greed. He kept a major portion of the property for himself and gave the son a very small part. The young man was upset and approached a wise old judge. After hearing him out, the judge summoned the friend. “How much do you want?” he asked. Confident that he was justified by the terms of the will, he specified almost the entire property. “Is this what you want?” asked the judge again. The man affirmed it was. “Then,” pronounced the judge, “you must give all that you want to this young man. That is what the will says.” Ambiguity had won the day!

The ancient Greek oracles knew that clarity is good but that ambiguity can serve you better. Famous for their predictions, they often found themselves in a dilemma. They resorted then to answers that could be interpreted in different ways. When the King of Lydia inquired what would happen if he attacked Persia, he was told that “a great kingdom would be destroyed”. He assumed that Persia was the kingdom referred to, but as it turned out it was Lydia — also a great kingdom — that was destroyed.

Diplomats take refuge in ambiguity to avoid offence. A famous author told an aspiring writer “that he would lose no time in reading his book”. A well-known socialite who did not want to attend the party of a great bore wrote to him, “We are entertaining ourselves this evening.”

Newspaper headlines that have to say a great deal in a few words often convey two meanings without meaning to and with hilarious results. “Kids make nutritious snacks” and “Milk drinkers are turning to powder” are startling, but the one to make your eyebrows go up is this one — “Prostitutes appeal to the Pope.”

Metaphors, we know, are implicit comparisons, but they could hide a bit of ambiguity as well. Shashi Tharoor, of the famous tweet ‘cattle class’ and ‘holy cows’, used it to stir action and reaction. The furore has died down, but the question remains — was it misunderstood semantics or political antics?

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