Janus Words (aka Contronyms, Antagonyms, or Auto-antonyms) are words that have developed contradictory meanings. In other words, they are words that are their own opposite—like ‘fast,’ which can refer both to moving very quickly and to staying put.
“I could not catch the pig because he was too fast for me!”
“The door held fast, obviously locked.”
Janus words are named for Janus, the Roman god of gates and doorways, as well as beginnings and endings.
There is usually some sort of reason behind most auto-antonyms. Many Janus words developed their contradictory meanings due to semantic broadening (a word that has a specific meaning gains a broader meaning later on in its life). Peruse is a good example of this.
“The inverse also happens: a word that begins life with a broad meaning gains a more specific meaning(s) that develop parallel to each other but in a way that results in two contradictory meanings. 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 behavior (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.”
“The same thing happened with oversight. It originally referred to watchful care or supervision, but through an extension of meaning, people also began to use it to refer to the thing that watchful care or supervision gets rid of (i.e. errors of omission). As with sanction, both meanings are still in use today, leading to plenty of jokes about what exactly “Congressional oversight” is describing.”
Sometimes, a contronym develops because we conflate two homographs which are not actually related. A homograph is one of two or more words spelled alike but different in meaning or derivation or pronunciation (such as the bow of a ship, a bow and arrow). “We can look at the word cleave. Cleave is actually two separate verbs: one which means “to split” (from the Old English verb cleōfan, which means “to split”), and one which means “to adhere firmly or loyally” (from the Old English verb clifian, which means “to adhere”). The same goes for clip, whose contronymous meanings are actually from two discrete verbs that mean “to attach something” and “to cut off.” Occasionally, we can’t be sure why exactly a word develops Antagonymous meanings.”
Here is a list of Janus words. Can you think of any more to add to the list?
- ALIGHT means “to settle onto” and “to dismount from”
- BELIE means “To picture falsely; misrepresent: ‘He spoke roughly in order to belie his air of gentility’ (James Joyce).” and “To show to be false: ‘Their laughter belied their outward grief.'”
- BOLT can mean “to secure, lock” or “to start suddenly and run away.”
- BUCKLE can mean “to fasten” or “to bend and then break.”
- CAN means “to save” (~ the peaches) and “to discard” (~ the worker)
- CLIP can mean “to separate” (~ clip the coupon from the paper) or “to join” (~ clip the answer sheets together).
- CLEAVE means “to join” (~ cleave unto) and “to separate or divide”
- COOL means “supportive of” and “opposed to” (~ he was “cool with” the idea; he was “cool to” the idea); sort of a slang usage
- CROP means “to plant or grow” and “to cut or harvest”
- CULL means “to select” and “to reject”
- DRESS means “to put on” (~ apparel, as a person does), or “to take it off” (~ as is done to a chicken).
- DUST means “to make free of dust” or “to sprinkle with fine particles”
- DRAW means “to bring together” and “to pull apart” (~ draw the curtains).
- FAST can mean “moving quickly” (as in “running fast”) or “not moving” (as in “stuck fast”) (as well as several other things).
- FIX can mean “a solution” (~ find a quick fix) or “a problem” (~ left us in a fix).
- FLESH means “to add substance (~ out)” to and “to clean a hide of flesh”
- GARNISH means “to add something to” or “to take away from”
- INOCULATE means “to protect against” and “to infect with”
- JOINT means “to combine or attach with a joint” and “to separate (esp. meat) at a joint
- LEASE means “to pay for use” and “to be paid for use”
- LEFT as a verb in the past tense means “to have gone”; as an adjective, it means “remaining.”
- OVERLOOK means “to look past, to miss or to look over” or “to inspect”
- OVERSIGHT means “watchful and responsible care” or “an inadvertent omission or error”
- PERUSE means “to read in an attentive manner” and “to read in a leisurely manner”
- PUBLIC means both “public (free)” (in American English) and “private (fee-based)” (in British English)
- RAVEL means “to entangle” and “to disentangle” (as does unravel!)
- REEL means “to wind onto” and “to let out from”
- RENT means “to grant possession in exchange for rent” and “to take and hold under an agreement to pay rent”
- ROCK something like a rock in firmness or a swaying or tilting movement
- ROOT means “to get something to take root” or “to pull up (root out)
- SANCTION means to give effective or authoritative approval or consent to or coercive measure intended to discourage (“to allow” or “to prohibit”)
- SECRETE means “to give off” and “to conceal”
- SETTLE means “to move” (the pile ~d) and “to stop moving” (we ~d in)
- SCREEN means “to display” (~ a movie) and “to hide” (~ his view)
- SEED means “to put seeds in” and “to take seeds out”
- SNAP means “to break into pieces” and “to fasten together”
- STEM means “To start or originate” and “To stop or restrain”
- TRIM means “to remove from” (~ the hedges) and “to add to” (~ the Christmas tree)
- WATER means “to pour water out” and “to take on water”
- WEATHER means “to endure” or “to erode.”
- WEAR means “to last under use” or “to erode under use.”
- WENT OFF means “to start” (~the alarm) and “to stop” (~ the lights went off)
Hugh, Rawson. “Janus Words – Two-faced English.” Cambridge Dictionary.com. October 1, 2013. https://dictionaryblog.cambridge.org/2013/07/01/janus-words-two-faced-english/
Nordquist, Richard. “These Words Are Their Own Opposites.” ThoughtCo, Apr. 10, 2017, thoughtco.com/janus-word-contranym-1691087.