Thursday, July 15, 2010


Janus, in Roman mythology, is the god of gates, doors, doorways, starts and ends [1]. January, the gateway to the New Year, is named after him. He’s usually depicted with two faces or heads facing in opposite directions. That is, at the same time looking back to the past and forward to the future. I knew all that before. But until last Tuesday when I read this Grammar Girl item [2], I didn’t know what a Janus Word is. Surprise surprise, it’s a word with two opposite meanings. Presumably such words are word usage mutations. Examples GG gives are sanction, cleave, screen and trim. A little internet trolling reveals the proper name for Janus Word is contronym (sometimes spelt contranym), or alternatively antagonym or autantonym or contradictanym; and these words are special examples of homonyms, i.e. words with the same spelling but different meanings. Indeed they’re homonymic antonyms. And they’re examples of polysemy, i.e. when a word has multiple meanings. Me? Compared with all these words ending in ‘nym’, I prefer the name Janus Word. Several webpages give us many more Janus Words [3, 4, 5]. Oh what fun. Ho hum.

P.S. Literally two minutes after I completed this post, I received an email from darling Emily saying she loved the Janus Word inclusion on Grammar Girl’s newsletter. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, Em.

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