Janus words: Words which are their own opposites

“That two-faced son of a jackal!” – Aladdin (Aladdin, 1992)

What a tricksy little beastie the English language can be. Not satisfied by countless rules with just as many exceptions and a half-arsed commitment to cases and words which sound the same but really look like they shouldn’t, we also do a cracking line in words which, depending on context, can mean their own exact opposite.

A commonly cited example is cleaveTo cleave something is to split it into separate parts, whereas to cleave to something is to adhere tightly to it.

Also known as “auto-antonyms”, there are more of these around than you might expect. Native speakers might very happily flit between definitions of these words with perfect understanding, but those learning the language can absolutely be forgiven for overlooking* these – fundamentally contradictory – double meanings.

*overlook being a Janus word itself: as a verb it means to fail to notice something, whereas as a noun it’s a high point from which to notice something (say, your failed-author husband coming at you with an axe).

Why Janus?

Janus (1550)
A 16th-century illustration of Janus getting his washboard abs (and frankly obscene front-door key) out for the lads.

As a Classicist, it’s my pleasure and delight to answer this one. Janus is the ancient Roman god of beginnings, doorways, and duality – Romans often had little models of him hanging over their front doors, and convention has it that the month of January is named after him (doorway to the new year, innit). He stands at the threshold between one stage and the next (a liminal position, from the Latin limen meaning threshold or doorway) and as a result is often depicted as a two-faced man, with each face looking in the opposite direction.

The phenomenon was first formally identified as “autoantonymy” in 1962, although an understanding of and play on such words has of course been around significantly longer. The rather more evocative “Janus word” is believed to have come into usage via German linguistics.

Examples of Janus words

Whilst by no means an exhaustive list, here are a few of my very favourites – feel free to get in touch with some of your own!

  • DustYou can remove dust by dusting a shelf, but add a rather more delicious variety when you dust a cake (e.g. with icing sugar)
  • Bound: Bounding off into the sunset will take you far, but you won’t be going anywhere if you find yourself bound up
  • Appropriate: You can appropriate funds to others, but be careful lest you appropriate someone else’s possessions as your own
  • Screen: You might try to screen that naughty video on your laptop from view, but pop it on a projector and you’ll be screening it for the world to see
50% mozzarella and 50% cheddar. (The) shit.

Interestingly (and to the displeasure of many a Points of View contributor), several contemporary Janus words express their duality across the generational divide: wickedsick, or awesome mean very different things depending on your stage in life.

I’m a particular fan of what I’m now calling Janus Swears (you can have that one if you like, Dictionary Corner): to talk bollocks is to be espousing the purest nonsense, yet the dog’s bollocks is, unexpectedly, something we all aspire to.

And what a world of difference the definite article can make, in transforming my home-made lasagne from shit to the shit

How do Janus words happen?

Well, sometimes it’s a straight-up case of homography, where two words look the same but have completely different etymologies. Such is the case with cleave above: in Old English, clēofan is to separate whereas clifian is to adhere. Perfectly reasonable.

Where the two meanings do have the same etyomology, things become subtler (and, I would argue, more interesting). It could be that each meaning refers to a different aspect of the word’s origin, such as with bolt – believed to link back to a short metal arrow attached to a cross bow. A fired arrow might be understood to bolt – move with speed – towards its target, whilst when attached it is bolted – held firmly – in place.

And what about awesomewicked, and bollocks? For a start, emphases do change with time – an awesome sight is still an impressive one, although these days rather more favourably so. Profanities are perhaps a different case, as the illicit rush of popping taboos caused by dropping such a word into common parlance can amplify the speaker’s standing in certain groups – and consequently that of the word itself.

Language, man. It’s awesome.



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