Janus Words: “Sanction” and “Cleave”
Context matters with contronyms.
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When you’re chuffed, are you pleased or displeased? Amazingly, you could be either! “Chuffed” is part of a small set of English words that mean both one thing, and the opposite. They're called Janus words, contronyms, or autoantonyms, and this week we’re going to learn how to use them carefully.
What Are Antonyms?
Words like “chuffed” and “sanction” are called autoantonyms because they are their own antonym.
An antonym is a word with an opposite meaning. For example, “wiggly” is an antonym of “still.” A wiggly baby is the opposite of a still baby. Most words can have lots of antonyms, not just one, so “thrashing” is also an antonym of “still.” A thrashing baby is also the opposite of a still baby.
When you add the prefix “auto,” which means “self,” you get “autoantonym”: a word that has two meanings, allowing it to be its own antonym.
Janus Words: From the Two-Faced Roman God
However, I like the name Janus word, which comes from the Roman god Janus who’s often shown with two faces, one pointing forward and one pointing back. Janus looking in opposite directions at the same time a good metaphor for words that have two opposite meanings.
What Does “Chuffed” Mean?
I covered this topic in The Grammar Devotional, and it came to my attention again a few months ago when I heard the word “chuffed” used twice in one week. I’d never heard it before, so I didn’t know what it meant, and from the context it seemed like one person was using it to mean pleased and the other person was using it to mean irritated.
Tom Merritt said he was “Very well chuffed to have Wil Harris on” his podcast, and Jessica Grose on the Slate XX Gabfest said she’s “not all that chuffed” that there are more male engineers in the world than female engineers. [Note: Many people have commented that "not all that chuffed" seems to mean "not all that happy," but if you listen to the audio, it is clear that Jessica meant "not all that unhappy." Her point was that it doesn't bother her that there are more male engineers.]
I thought, “‘Chuffed’ can’t mean both those things.” I’d seen lists of Janus words before, but “chuffed” was never on those lists. But I looked it up in the Oxford English Dictionary, and the entry is very short:
a. pleased or satisfied
b. displeased or disgruntled
Janus word it is, although my British friends assure me that the “pleased” meaning is much more common.
“Sanction”: Approve and Punish
Although “chuffed” is an uncommon word in American English, other Janus words are more common and require that you use them carefully.