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The word unanimous is reasonably easy to trace: it comes from Latin unum (one) + anima (mind). If several people are of the same unanimous opinion, they could be said to be speaking “of one mind”.

The word equivocal looks very similar. It comes from aequi (same) + vocal (from vox, voice). It would seem that it should mean “speaking with the same voice” and thus have a meaning similar to unanimous. Yet, it means the opposite, and it is unequivocal that is a synonym of unanimous.

How did equivocal manage to reverse its meaning?

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3 Answers

up vote 12 down vote accepted

Equivocal does not mean the opposite of unanimous, nor has it reversed its meaning.

For a person to equivocate is to use ambiguous language, and be non-committal: to "hedge" between two positions without committing to either, and (literally) to "call equally one thing or the other" — to talk equally of two different positions.

Equivocal is the adjective form: an equivocal statement is one which talks equally of two different things, and does not take a clear single position. Unequivocal is the opposite: something with no ambiguity, something that does not equally emphasise two contradicting points, a strong message which leaves no doubt.

Note that these words are generally used to statements coming from one person; they are not (necessarily) related to whether an opinion is unanimous or not. Unanimous just means, as you said, that everyone shares the same opinion. So, when used for a statement made by a committee, all possibilities exist: it may be

  • unanimous and equivocal: everyone endorsed a vague statement (most statements by government committees are probably examples)
  • unanimous and unequivocal: a strong position that everyone shared
  • non-unanimous and equivocal: not everyone agreed with the statement, probably because some of them wanted to pass a clear message instead
  • non-unanimous and unequivocal: a strong message that not everyone agreed with.

So you see they are orthogonal, not opposites.

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Heh, I think you got a bit bogged down trying to correct my misunderstanding of the meanings of the words, but you did also answer the actual question, so I’ll accept this as the answer. Thanks! –  Timwi Dec 27 '10 at 20:57
@Timwi: Bogged down? :-) How? Was something in my answer unclear? –  ShreevatsaR Dec 28 '10 at 3:58
No, not unclear... just superfluous. I only used unanimous as an example for a word whose etymology is clear and similar — my actual question wasn’t about unanimous at all but only about equivocal. But like I said, you answered it. Thanks again. –  Timwi Dec 28 '10 at 18:32
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To support ShreevatsaR's point and to address the actual origin of the word, here's what Etymonline has to say:

equivocal c.1600, from L.L. aequivocus "of equal voice, of equal significance, ambiguous" (see equivocation) [...]

equivocation, late 14c., "the fallacy of using a word in different senses at different stages of the reasoning" (a loan-transl. of Gk. homonymia, lit. "having the same name"), from O.Fr. equivocation, from L.L. aequivocationem (nom. aequivocatio), from aequivocus "of identical sound," pp. of aequivocare, from aequus "equal" (see equal) + vocare "to call" (see voice).

Emphasis added. So equivocal never referred to "same voice", but rather to "identical sound". The difference might seem subtle, but it's crucial. Equivocal is not (and was never meant to be) about voicing the same opinion, but rather about voicing an opinion that could be taken to mean completely different things to different people.

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The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology: Equivocal: nominal only; capable of twofold interpretation XVII; of doubtful genuineness, questionable XVIII. Equivocation: ambiguous use of words XIV; use of words in a double sense in order to mislead.

So you are using equivocal words to hide what you are saying E.g. the word bad has an original meaning of effeminate man/hermaphrodite. Bad could be used as code to alert others of their sexuality without causing alarm

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