Janus Words: “Sanction” and “Cleave”

Context matters with contronyms.

Mignon Fogarty
5-minute read
Episode #602

a statue of Janus to illustrate contronyms

In this dark first month of the year, it seems like a good time to talk about Janus words, also known as contronyms and auto-antonyms, because January gets its name from the two-faced Roman god named Janus as well.

Words that have two opposite meanings such as “dust” (which can mean both “to add a light layer” as in “I dusted the cake with powdered sugar,” and “to remove dust,” as in “I dusted the baseboards before everyone came over for dinner,”) are called Janus words because the god Janus is usually shown with two faces looking in opposite directions, and that “oppositeness” represents the opposite word meanings.

January gets its name from the same Roman god because as the god of doorways and archways, he’s also thought of as looking into the past and the future and representing transitions such as the transition from the old year to the new year.

What Are Auto-Antonyms?

These words are also called auto-antonyms because 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 “auto-antonym”: a word that is its own antonym.

‘Sanction’: Approve and Punish

“Sanction” is a common example. A few years ago I told you that the Associated Press had sanctioned the use of “hopefully” as a sentence adverb, meaning that it’s OK to write a sentence like “Hopefully, Squiggly saved some chocolate for the rest of us.” That meant the Associated Press put its stamp of approval on such sentences, but if I had written that the Associated Press sanctioned writers it found using “hopefully” in this way, it would mean it had punished its writers—taken action against “hopefully” instead of supporting it.

“Sanction” can mean “to approve or ratify something,” but it can also mean to “punish or penalize someone.” However, you’re safer using it to mean “approve.” The “penalize” meaning is much, much newer: people only began using it in the 1950s. The Oxford English Dictionary sniffs its nose at the “penalize” meaning, calling it of “doubtful acceptability,” and Bryan Garner, who trains lawyers to write and is the author of Garner’s Modern English Usage, says that lawyers who use the “penalize” meaning risk being misunderstood since the “approve” meaning is dominant in legal circles. So even though “sanction” has two meanings, one is more common, and people could be confused if you use the uncommon one.


About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show.

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