An anfibología/amphibology, also called an amphiboly in English, is ‘a phrase or sentence that can be understood in two ways.’ A Spanish-language Wikipedia article on anfibología gives several examples, the first of which is:
Mi padre fue al pueblo de José en su coche.
The English version would be equally amphibolous:
My father went to José’s town in his car.
Did the traveling take place in the father’s car or in José’s car?
Here’s another Spanish example:
Autos usados en venta: ¿irá a cualquier otro lugar adonde lo engañarán? ¡Venga con nosotros primero!
Used cars for sale: why go somewhere else where they’ll cheat you? Come to us first!*
As is often the case, the Internet offers many more examples in English than in Spanish. You can see a bunch of good ones at Sandy LaFave’s website. One classic amphiboly not mentioned there is from the Marx Brothers’ movie Animal Crackers, in which Groucho says: “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don’t know.” From the same movie, but not as well known, is this amphiboly: “I was outside the cabin smoking some meat. There wasn’t a cigar store in the neighborhood!”
As for the origin of anfibología/amphibology, it comes from Late Latin amphibologia, from Latin amphibolia, from Greek amphibolos ‘ambiguous.’ The Greek adjective was a compound of amphi-, which meant ‘both’ or ‘on both sides,’ and the root of ballein ‘to throw.’ Figuratively speaking, when a phrase or statement is amphibolous, its meaning gets thrown to one side or the other.
* This reminds me that a candidate for office in Austin some years ago adopted the unfortunate campaign slogan “For a little less corruption.”
© 2013 Steven Schwartzman