mid-14c., "eager or inordinate desire for honor or preferment," from Old French ambicion (13c.), or directly from Latin ambitionem (nominative ambitio) "a going around," especially to solicit votes, hence "a striving for favor, courting, flattery; a desire for honor, thirst for popularity," noun of action from past participle stem of ambire "to go around, go about," from amb- "around" (from PIE root *ambhi- "around") + ire "go" (from PIE root *ei- "to go").
Rarely used in English or Latin the literal sense. In early use in English always pejorative, of inordinate or overreaching desire; ambition was grouped with pride and vainglory, and sometimes meant little more than "arrogance." Neutral or positive senses are modern. Meaning "object of strong desire" is from c. 1600.