The Roman god Janus–the personification of a Latin word meaning “doorway”–was depicted as having two faces, each pointing in opposite directions. He was the god of doorways and gateways, beginnings and endings.
The term “Janus words” is applied to words that can mean opposites. A common example is the verb cleave, which can mean either, “to stick together” or “to cut apart”:
Gawain cleaves off the stranger’s head in one blow, but the stranger does not die.
And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? –Matthew 19:5, KJV.
- Such words are variously known as auto-antonyms, antilogies, enantiodromes, and contranyms.
- Because of the long-established term antonym as the word for “a word that is the opposite or antithesis of another,” it seems that auto-antonym is the most practical choice.
- Here are three examples of auto-antonyms:
The adjective sanguine is from the Latin for “bloody.” It can be used in a literal sense: “The sanguine murders were the work of a serial killer.”
In medieval philosophy, people were believed to be governed by the “four humours”: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm.” These humors embodied certain characteristics:
blood: courageous, hopeful, amorous
yellow bile: easily angered, bad-tempered
black bile: despondent, sleepless, irritable
phlegm: calm, emotional
- Someone of a “sanguine temperament,” for example, is governed by a cheerful disposition.
- The auto-antonym sanguine can mean either “bloody, bloodthirsty,” or “cheerful, loving.”
The verb sanction comes from a Latin noun, sanctionem, which meant something that was so important or sacred that it was required; the law even imposed a penalty for failure to perform it. Both good and bad notions, therefore, attached to the word.
As an English verb, sanction can mean either, “to endorse or authorize,” or “to punish.” For example,
Court will sanction Prenda lawyers if they don’t appear April 2 (i.e., will punish them)
Illinois Becomes 20th State to Sanction Therapeutic Use of Cannabis (i.e., approve)
“Enantiodrome” redirects here. For the Jungian principle of equilibrium, see Enantiodromia.
An auto-antonym or autantonym, also called a contronym, contranym or Janus word, is a word with multiple meanings (senses) of which one is the reverse of another. For example, the word cleave can mean “to cut apart” or “to bind together”.
This phenomenon is called enantiosemy, enantionymy (enantio- means “opposite”), antilogy or autantonymy. An enantiosemic term is necessarily polysemic.
The terms “autantonym” and “contronym” were coined by Joseph Twadell Shipley in 1960 and Jack Herring in 1962, respectively. An auto-antonym is alternatively called an antagonym, Janus word (after the Roman god with two faces), enantiodrome, enantionym, self-antonym, antilogy, or addad (Arabic, singular didd).
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Some pairs of contronyms are true homographs, i.e., distinct words with different etymology which happen to have the same form.
For instance cleave “separate” is from Old English clēofan, while cleave “adhere” is from Old English clifian, which was pronounced differently.
The King James Bible often uses “let” in the sense of “forbid”, a meaning which is now uncommon, and which is derived from the Old English verb lettan 'hinder, delay, impede, oppress', as opposed to the meaning “allow”, which is derived from the Old English verb lǣtan 'leave, allow, let on lease (etc.)'. The alternative meaning of “let” can still be found in the legal phrase “without let or hindrance” and in ball games such as tennis, squash, table tennis, and racquetball.
Other contronyms are a form of polysemy, but where a single word acquires different and ultimately opposite definitions. For example, sanction—”permit” or “penalize”; bolt (originally from crossbows)—”leave quickly” or “fix/immobilize”; fast—”moving rapidly” or “unmoving”.
Some English examples result from nouns being verbed in the patterns of “add to” and “remove from”; e.g. dust, seed, stone. Denotations and connotations can drift or branch over centuries.
An apocryphal story relates how Charles II (or sometimes Queen Anne) described St Paul's Cathedral (using contemporaneous English) as “awful, pompous, and artificial,” with the meaning (rendered in modern English) of “awe-inspiring, majestic, and ingeniously designed”.
 Negative words such as bad and sick sometimes acquire ironic senses referring to traits that are impressive and admired, if not necessarily positive (that outfit is bad as hell; lyrics full of sick burns).
Some contronyms result from differences in varieties of English.
For example, to table a bill means “to put it up for debate” in British English, while it means “to remove it from debate” in American English (where British English would have “shelve”, which in this sense has an identical meaning in American English). To barrack for anyone in Australian English is to loudly demonstrate your support, while it expresses disapproval and contempt in British English.
Some words contain simultaneous opposing or competing meanings in the same context, rather than alternative meanings in different contexts; examples include blend words such as coopetition (meaning a murky blend of cooperation and competition), frenemy (meaning a murky blend of friend and enemy), glocalization, etc. These are not usually classed as contronyms, but they share the theme of containing opposing meanings.
Auto-antonyms exist in many languages, as the following examples show.
In Latin, sacer has the double meaning “sacred, holy” and “accursed, infamous”. Greek δημιουργός gave Latin its demiurgus, from which English got its demiurge, which can refer either to God as the creator or to the devil, depending on philosophical context.
In many languages, a word stem associated with a single event may treat the action of that event as unitary, so it can refer to any of the doings or persons on either side of the transaction, that is, to the action of either the subject or the object, or to either the person who does something or the person to whom (or for whom) it is done. Other cues nail down the aspects of subject versus object. Thus there is a simple logic involved, despite that discussions of such words sometimes fixate on a superficial appearance of illogic (that is, “how can one word mean both?!”) such as in words for borrow and lend; see #Examples below.
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- Appropriate can mean “to give (money or assets) to” or “to delegate to”, as well as “to take something (for one's own use)”.
- Awesome can mean “inducing awe/respect” or “cool, splendid”
- Bound can mean “tied into immobility” or a (or to) “leap or jump”.
- Cite can mean “to recognize a good deed or performance” (cite for bravery) or “to require a court appearance” (often not a good thing, such as citing for DUI).
- Cleave can mean “to cling” or “to split apart”.
- Clip can mean “attach” or “cut off”.
- Conclude can mean “to start” (a contract) or “to end”.
- Dust can mean “to remove dust (cleaning a house)” or “to add dust” (e.g. to dust a cake with powdered sugar).
- Fast can mean “without moving; fixed in place”, (holding fast, also as in “steadfast”), or “moving quickly”.
- Impregnable can mean “invulnerable” or “vulnerable” (to impregnation).
- Let can mean “allow” or “prevent” (A British Passport contains a request that the bearer be allowed to “pass without let or hindrance”).
- Left can mean “remain” or “leave” (“He left the room” or “He was the last one left in the room”).
- Off can mean “activated”, “beginning to make a noise” (e.g. “The alarm went off”) or “deactivated” / “ceasing operation” (e.g. “The alarm turned off by itself”).
- Overlook can mean to miss seeing something, or a place to see something from above.
- Oversight can mean “accidental omission or error”, or “close scrutiny and control”.
- Ravel can mean “to separate” (e.g. threads in cloth) or “entangle”.
- Sanction can mean “approve” or “penalize”.
- Table can mean “to discuss a topic at a meeting” or “to postpone discussion of a topic”.
- The German verb ausleihen, the Russian verb одолжить and the Finnish verb lainata can mean either “to lend” or “to borrow”, with case, pronouns, and mention of persons making the sense clear. The verb stem conveys that “a lending-and-borrowing event is occurring”, and the other cues convey who is lending to whom. This makes sense because anytime lending is occurring, borrowing is simultaneously occurring; one cannot happen without the other.
- The English verb appropriate has several senses with a unitary theme of assets being assigned; it can thus refer either to one giving assets to someone else or one taking assets for oneself. The superficial “contradiction” is that giving and taking are “opposites”, but the unity is on the level of “assets being assigned”. This is comparable to the German example with the lending-and-borrowing event: similarly, “opposite” sides of a single coin are (figuratively) involved. The coin analogy is useful because it reveals another latent English example of the same cognitive unity: One could ask why “flipping a coin” in English can “paradoxically” refer to either flipping and getting heads or flipping and getting tails. We don't have separate words, *heads-ing and *tails-ing; rather, we have the one word, flipping. Thus I flipped him for it at the same time that he flipped me for it; it is not the idiomatic nature of English to say that I *heads-ed him for it whereas he *tails-ed me for it, although any language could potentially develop that contrasting pair. In the German example, the comparable thought is that I lendborrowed to him at the same time that he lendborrowed from me—despite that English cannot idiomatically translate it that way because English currently lacks such a word as *lendborrow.
- The Romanian verb a închiria means “to rent” (as the lessee does) as well as “to let” (as the lessor does).
- The Swahili verb kutoa means both “to remove” and “to add”.
- In his Limited Views: Essays on Ideas and Letters
Janus Words: Two-Faced and Contradictory
Janus word is a word (such as cleave) having opposite or contradictory meanings depending on the context in which the word is used. Also called antilogy, contronym, contranym, autantonym, auto-antonym, and contradictanyma.
- To weather can mean “to endure” or “to erode.”
- Sanction can mean “to allow” or “to prohibit.”
- Fix can mean “a solution” (as in “find a quick fix”) or “a problem” (“left us in a fix”).
- Clip can mean “to separate” (as in “clip the coupon from the paper”) or “to join” (as in “clip the answer sheets together”).
- Left as a verb in the past tense means “to have gone”; as an adjective, it means “remaining.”
- Wear can mean “to last under use” or “to erode under use.”
- Buckle can mean “to fasten” or “to bend and then break.”
- The verb bolt can mean “to secure, lock” or “to start suddenly and run away.”
- Screen can mean “to conceal” or “to show.”
- Fast can mean “moving quickly” (as in “running fast”) or “not moving” (as in “stuck fast”).
“In British English, when you table a document, you add it to the agenda for a meeting, usually by placing copies on the table at the beginning of the meeting because it was not ready in time to be sent out.
In American English, however, when you table a document, you remove it indefinitely from the agenda. Writers on both sides of the Atlantic should be aware of this possible source of confusion.”(R.L.
Trask, Mind the Gaffe! Harper, 2006)
“[T]his usage of literally [to mean figuratively] . . . is not the first, nor will it be the last, instance of a word that is used in a seemingly contradictory way. There are many such words, and they arise through various means.
Called 'Janus words,' 'contranyms,' or 'auto-antonyms,' they include cleave ('to stick to' and 'to split apart') . . . and peruse and scan (each meaning both 'to read closely' and 'to glance at hastily; skim').
Usage writers often criticize such words as potentially confusing and usually single out one of the meanings as 'wrong,' the 'right' meaning being the older one, or the one closer to the word's etymological meaning, or the one more frequent when 18th-century grammarians began to examine language systematically.” (Jesse Sheidlower, “The Word We Love to Hate.” Slate, Nov. 1, 2005)
“[Factoid is a] term created by Norman Mailer in 1973 for a piece of information that becomes accepted as a fact, although it is not actually true; or an invented fact believed to be true because it appears in print. Mailer wrote in Marilyn: 'Factoids . . .
that is, facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper, creations which are not so much lies as a product to manipulate emotion in the Silent Majority.' Lately, factoid has come to mean a trivial fact. That usage makes it a contranym (also called a Janus word) in that it means both one thing and its opposite . . ..
“(Paul Dickson, “How Authors From Dickens to Dr. Seuss Invented the Words We Use Every Day.” The Guardian, June 17, 2014)
“Best and worst both mean 'to defeat.' Cleave means both 'to cling to' and 'to split apart.' Fast means both 'speedy' and 'immobilized' (as well as several other things). Dress means to put on apparel, as a person does, or to take it off, as is done to a chicken.
And while you are reflecting on such oddities, you may as well know that bleach means also 'blacking'; bluefish also 'greenfish'; bosom also 'depression'; emancipate also 'to enslave'; and help also 'to hinder.'”(Willard R. Espy, The Garden of Eloquence: A Rhetorical Bestiary.
Harper & Row, 1983)
10 Verbs That Are Contronyms
Have you ever encountered a word and learned that it meant the opposite of what you remembered? If so, you may have come across a contronym.
A contronym, often referred to as a Janus word or auto-antonym, is a word that evokes contradictory or reverse meanings depending on the context. Specifically, a contronym is a word with a homonym (another word with the same spelling but different meaning) that is also an antonym (a word with the opposite meaning).
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- Generally, contronyms became contronyms in one of two ways: (1) different words with different etymologies converged into one word, or (2) one word acquired different and opposite meanings over time.
- Here are some contronyms that are commonly used as verbs in the English language:
- to buckle
Definition 1: to fasten or secure with a buckle (i.e., a device with a frame, hinged pin, and movable tongue, designed to fasten together two loose ends of a belt or strap).
Example 1: Our hiking instructors told us to buckle our backpacks to our bodies during rigorous climbs.
Definition 2: to bend, warp, or collapse under pressure.
Example 2: I felt my legs buckle as I hiked up the steep mountain with my heavy backpack.
Definition 1: to join or adhere closely; cling.
Example 1: The shy baby rabbit cleaved to his mother’s body.
Definition 2: to split or divide, especially by cutting.
Example 2: The hunter uses a Swiss Army knife to cleave the rabbit’s meat from the bone.
Definition 1: to remove dust.
Example 1: My mother asked me to dust the window shades before the party.
Definition 2: to sprinkle with soil or dust.
Example 2: I watched my mother dust my birthday cake in a thin layer of white sugar.
Definition 1: to instruct, prescribe, or command.
Example 1: For my sake, our family counselor enjoined my parents to communicate with each other after their divorce.
Definition 2: to prohibit or forbid (especially via an injunction).
Example 2: After my parents’ divorce, the court enjoined my abusive mother from contacting me and my father.
Definition 1: to monitor or inspect.
Example 1: Our teachers overlook our academic progress.
Definition 2: to fail to notice or choose not to emphasize.
Example 2: Because they are tired, my teachers often overlook the spelling errors in my homework.
Definition 1: to skim or read without attention to detail.
Example 1: My mind wanders when I peruse chemistry textbooks because I have no interest in science.
Definition 2: to read or examine in detail.
Example 2: To study for the final exam, I sit down in a quiet room to peruse my chemistry notes.
Definition 1: to tangle.
Example 1: When she is bored, my daughter ravels her hair into huge knots with her hands.
Definition 2: to disentangle threads or fibers.
Example 2: My daughter uses tweezers to ravel stubborn knots in her hair.
Definition 1: to sell or lease the use of a commodity.
Example 1: The landlord rents her apartment in the city to a young couple.
Definition 2: to buy the use of a commodity.
Example 2: Depending on how much money you want to spend, you can rent a room or an entire apartment from the landlord.
Definition 1: to permit or grant approval.
Example 1: In some countries, the government sanctions the ownership of guns by private citizens.
Definition 2: to condemn or penalize.
Example 2: In some states, the government imposes sanctions on the ownership of guns by private citizens.
Definition 1: to protect or conceal.
Example 1: Because he did not have a hat or umbrella, he used a newspaper to screen his face from the sun.
Definition 2: to show or broadcast (a movie or TV show).
Example 2: The local movie theater will screen the new horror movie tonight.
The next time you run into a word that confuses you, keep in mind that seemingly simple words can have opposite or multiple implications, and that the meaning of a word depends on both its dictionary definition and the context in which it is used.
One Word, Two Opposite Meanings: Terms That Janus Would Have Loved
I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: two-faced words, also known as Janus words — after the Roman god with two faces looking in opposite directions —or contronyms.
RS:We are talking about a word that has developed two opposite meanings, explains linguist and author Richard Lederer.
RICHARD LEDERER: “We know that words over time, almost all words, especially nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs, develop different meanings. And we have some words that have more than a hundred meanings. But contronyms develop opposite meanings.
Take the word 'out': just a three-letter word; sometimes an adverb, sometimes a preposition or a particle. When the sun is out, you can see it; when the lights are out, then you can't see them. So it is both visible and invisible.
RS: “Can you give us a few more examples.? Out, you suggested. How about 'fast'?”
RICHARD LEDERER: “Right, and fast can mean moving quickly or firmly in one place. And that's the rarer meaning, but you 'hold fast' to something, it means you stay with it, whereas 'she ran fast' would be somebody moving rapidly.
And similarly, 'bolt' —to secure in place, and then also to dart away, so it's both still and moving. 'I'll bolt the door' — you're securing it in place so that it won't move.
And 'Did you see the horse bolt, or the bolt of lightning?' That has to do with very rapid movement.”
RS: “Well, in these contradictions, did they come later as the word evolved?”
RICHARD LEDERER: “You get one, and then through history it moves along. For example, when I was in law school, we would have moot court arguments, and the idea in moot court was that something was arguable. And I still feel that's the more sacred, puristic meaning. But now, a 'moot point' —and many people say 'mute point,' gulp, don't do that.”
- AA: “What they mean is m-o-o-t, moot.”
- RICHARD LEDERER: “M-o-o-t.”
- RS: “Not m-u-t-e, right?”