Janus Words: The Two-Faced Words of English
Updated: Feb 14, 2021
What comes to mind when you read the verb ‘to dust’?
If it is something along the lines of ‘I hate dusting the cupboards – it’s a thankless chore!’ I wholeheartedly agree with you.
Or maybe you thought of ‘Dust the cake with powdered sugar before serving’?
If you look at the two sentences together, you would notice that the verb ‘dust’ means two different things: in the first sentence ‘to dust’ means ‘to remove dust’, while in the second sentence it means to add powder/dust to the surface of something.
OK, so how about this word: To temper iron means to harden it and make it more durable, but to temper your criticism towards your mother-in-law’s cooking means to soften it.
Janus words, also called contronyms or auto antonyms, are named after the Roman God Janus who had two faces looking in opposite directions. Some Janus words are derived from homonyms that had different meanings, others become so through semantic broadening: gathering new meanings along the way. Others still arise from the fact that people like using words in new ways: ‘terrific’ was not a good thing a century and a half ago, and neither was ‘wicked’, but both of them can now be used to mean ‘great’ in informal contexts.
The different meanings of a Janus word usually belong to different domains: the Bible sense of ‘wicked’ as ‘bad’ has little chance to meet head-on the teenage expletive of the 1980s ‘wicked’. Dusting cakes belongs in the realm of culinary undertakings, removing dust from shelves is slotted under unpopular chores. But sometimes the speaker may not be aware of the diametrically opposed meanings of the word. This is especially common when it comes to idioms.
While talking to clients, you can speak of being out of the office on Monday – outside of the building where you work. But you can also speak of working out of the nearby café this week – answering your emails from a table at the café while your office is being repainted.
There are also Janus words that depend on the English variety spoken. In British English a strike is a success, like striking gold. American English speakers, on the other hand, perceive ‘strike’ from the point of baseball, where it means a failure to hit the ball. In a business situation this contrast in meaning could lead to major miscommunication.
Another Janus word from across the Atlantic is nervy – a nervy American is over-confident – she has got a lot of nerve – while for the British the nervy young man waiting for his interview is a bundle of nerves: worried and just wishing for it to be over.
Below are some resources on Janus words:
Have you met any Janus words until now? Share them with us in the comments below!