Is disambiguity a word?

I had the pleasure of speaking at the User Assistance Conference in Edinburgh recently and spent one lunch time chatting with Professor Geoffrey K. Pullum, who is the Professor of General Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh and regular contributor to the Language Log. We were talking about whether or not ‘disambiguity’ was a real word. As you can imagine, he had much more thoughtful opinions on this than I did. Professor Pullum had an inkling that it wasn’t a proper word (although I think he kind of liked it anyway!)

Not long after lunch I received this email from the Professor that he had kindly allowed me to share with you because I know you’d be interested to know too!

I was not wrong: the entire 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary, which records every lexeme ever attested in 700 years of the history of the English language, has no entry for “disambiguity” at all.

It also isn’t in Webster’s, the greatest dictionary of American English (search it online at http://www.webster.com):

Suggestions for disambiguity:

    1. disambiguate           2. disambiguates
    3. disambiguating         4. disambiguation
    5. disembogued            6. disambiguated
    7. disembogues            8. disambiguations
    …

Your word, with its verb-restricted “dis-” prefix (as in disable, disabuse, disagree, disallow, disappear, disarm, disband, disbar, disbelieve, etc.) and its noun ending, is entirely your own invention.

Though I should note that a few nouns formed from dis- verbs are found.”Disability” is one that has the -ity suffix.  So that is a sort of model, not in the sense that you did have it in mind, but in the sense that you could have done.  It shows that forming such a word is not out of the question for English word formation principles.  It’s just never been done before!

I’m fairly certain I’m not the first person to have ‘made up’ this word or that it’s ‘my word’, but I like it all the more after learning this little bit about it novelty. Linguists are cool.

5 Responses to “Is disambiguity a word?”

  1. Gordon October 7, 2008 at 11:20 pm #

    What a fascinating man the Professor was, I had the briefest of moments with him.

    And, to all readers I can confirm that Leisa’s presentation was excellent, and very thought provoking. But hey, I knew it would be!

  2. leisa.reichelt October 7, 2008 at 11:27 pm #

    cheque’s in the mail Gordon, thanks :)
    was great to meet you ‘in the real’ finally!

  3. Craig Brown October 8, 2008 at 11:23 am #

    Linguists are cool. One of my regular poscasts is Libua Franca (from abc.net/rn/linguafranca)

    Great word by the way.

  4. Ken October 9, 2008 at 3:20 pm #

    Don’t know about the first, but if you were the only person to have made up the word, I would not have come across your post. I read about “Disambiguation” on Wikipedia and thought, “surely it’s called ‘Disambiguity’? So I looked it up in Google and hit your post. Thanks,

  5. imber April 6, 2009 at 10:31 am #

    I too saw disambiguation on Wikipedia and thought it might be an American creation.

    I have been using disambiguity for years, evidently incorrectly. I intend to continue using it however as I like it and it sounds pleasing to the ear.

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