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Janus words

January gets its name from Janus, the Roman god of doors and gates, and (more metaphorically) the god of transitions and transformations. What better time to talk about so-called Janus words.

Statues of Janus depict him with two faces, one looking to the past and one looking to the future. Janus words are ones that signify a meaning but also its opposite. They are sometime also called contranyms (or contronyms), antagonistic terms, auto-antonyms, or even the fancy Greek term enantiosemes. Typical examples include oversight, a noun which can mean a mistake or can mean monitoring something, peruse, a verb meaning to skim or to read extra-carefully, sanction, meaning to allow something or to penalize someone, and citation, which can refer to an achievement or a violation. And there are even Janus greetings, like aloha, ciao, and shalom, which can be used for “hello” or “goodbye.”

Janus words arise because of polysemy: words get their meaning from their use, and as words are used in new circumstances, new meanings arise. Sometimes the new meaning extends part of the older one, as when peruse shifts from “to read carefully” to mean “to read quickly” or when citation goes from “document listing an achievement” to “document listing a violation.” Over time, the specifics of a meaning can be radically reinterpreted. If you read something carefully and quickly, both meanings come together. And actions noted in a citation can be good ones or bad ones. When you dust something, that involves doing something with particles of matter: you can dust a room by removing dust or you can dust a crime scene or a cake by sprinkling around some powdered material.  

Some Janus words are oddly idiosyncratic: the verb strike means “to hit,” but in baseball, a strike occurs when you fail to hit the pitch. It may be called a strike because you struck at the pitch, but didn’t hit it. And there is the Christmassy term to trim the tree, which means to decorate the tree with ornaments, not to cut off its limbs. The opposed meanings make more sense if you think of trim’searlier meaning “of putting something in order.” When we trim hair or hedges or meat,cutting away is involved, but we are also putting the hair, hedges, and meat in proper condition. And we refer to ornamentation of clothing and buildings as trimming. You may have eaten a holiday meal with “all the trimmings.” So trimming the tree retains the sense of fixing it up, while trimming the hedges combines the idea of putting something in order with the idea of cutting away the overgrowth. 

Many Janus words are a natural consequence of the twist and turns that meanings take and it’s easy to find long lists words that can have more-or-less opposite meanings. Each has its own story and circumstances and some are more convincing than others. The two meanings of cleave (“to adhere to” and “to split”) arose by accident, from homophones with different meanings (Old English clifian and cleofan). The same is true for clip (“to attach” or “to cut away”).   

There are also Janus phrases and Janus word parts (or “morphemes” as we linguists call them). “It’s all downhill from here” can refer to easy sledding or a downward fall. And if you say “That takes the cake,” the idiom can mean outstanding or egregious, depending on the situation (and perhaps on the intonation). And the morphemes awe- and ter- can be good or bad depending on whether we are talking about something “awesome” and “terrific” or “awful” and terrible.” Other words get their Janus-like meanings from the ways in which they are combined, like unbuttonable or inflammable.

Finally, there is the much-maligned literally. That’s a word that many of us sometimes use to mean “figuratively” (as in “literally paved with gold” or “literally climbing the walls”) and other times to mean “not figuratively” (“to take someone’s comments literally” or “is literally a baby”). As is the case with many other adverbs, the intensified use of literally takes over as the core of the meaning. 

Figurative literally gets a bad name because of the starkness of the contrast of the two senses and of course because it is overused by some speakers. But it’s part of set of such words (such as totally, awfully, terribly, completely, and more), where intensification has shifted an earlier word sense.

In any event, I think Janus words are literally awesome.

Featured image by Glen Carrie via Unsplash.

Recent Comments

  1. Marlin E. Blaine

    Thanks for the fun article–and for all your previous ones, which I have greatly enjoyed. The kind of word you discuss here–by whatever name you call it–offers a fascinating example of the flux that makes language such a dynamic thing. By the way, “egregious,” which is contrasted with “outstanding” in this article, is another example of a Janus word, at least historically. Deriving from a Latin word meaning “outside the flock,” its early use in English could reflect a positive or negative tone. The positive sense has largely disappeared, though the OED does cite an instance from 2004.

  2. Ms. Hughes

    Why would a linguist or a professor at SOU begin a sentence with the word “And?” The blogger Mr. Battistella, so-called professor, must not have excelled in his graduate writing seminar.

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