In this week’s blog, we wanted to discuss a strange little oddity of the English language- Janus words. This term refers to words which have opposite or contradictory meanings depending on the context in which they are used. (The term Janus refers to the Roman God Janus, who is often depicted as having two faces pointing in opposite directions). There are a number of different names that are used to refer to these words, including auto-antonyms, antilogy, contronym, contranym, autantonym, auto-antonym, and contradictanyma!

Below are a selection of just a few interesting auto-antonyms:

  • To weather can mean “to endure” or “to erode.”
  • 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 leaves from a plant”) 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.”
  • Buckle can mean “to fasten” or “to bend and then break.”
  • Bolt can mean “to secure, lock” or “to start suddenly and run away.”
  • Fast can mean “moving quickly” (as in “running fast”) or “not moving” (as in “stuck fast”).

There are a few different explanations for the existence of auto-antonyms. The first explanation being that some Janus pairs are homographs. The definition of homograph is ‘one of two or more words spelt and pronounced alike but different in meaning’. This means that some Janus pairs are made up of two completely separate words, with different origins, that just happen to be spelt and pronounced exactly the same. A Janus word which follows this pattern is the word cleave, which means both “to cut apart” and “to bind together”. In this case, cleave meaning “separate” comes from the Old English word clēofan, while cleave meaning “adhere” is from the Old English clifian, a totally separate word!

Other auto-antonyms are a result of something called Polysemy, which simply means ‘having multiple meanings’. Polysemy is not the same as homographs, as, with the latter, the multiple meanings of the word are accidental- a linguistic coincidence, whereas polysemous words are in the same semantic field, with linked meanings and origins. Polysemous words are often created through the process of semantic broadening/widening. This refers to the process of a word that originally had a specific meaning, gaining a broader and more general meaning later on in its life.

The opposite can also happen, in which a word that originally had a broad meaning gains a number of more specific meanings. When the general meaning of a word is narrowed into several more specific meanings, and within those meanings are two contradictory definitions, Janus words have been created.  Meriam Webster notes that ‘Sanction is one such word. When it entered English, it referred to an oath. Over time, it came to refer to something that would compel someone or something to moral behaviour (as an oath might); later, it gained the two contradictory senses that refer to approval and economic disapproval—both of which might compel a person or a country to behave better.’

If you know of any interesting Janus words that we haven’t mentioned here, let us know on our Twitter or Facebook pages!

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