Context matters with 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.
‘Seed’: Add and remove
Another contronym that, like “dust,” can mean both “to add” and “to remove” is “seed.” When you seed a tomato, you remove the seeds; but when you seed a lawn, you add seeds.
‘Trim’: Add and remove
And a third verb that can mean both “to add” and “to remove” is “trim.” You can trim your bangs to shorten them or trim a tree to add decorations to it.
‘Cleave’: Stick together and cut apart
“Cleave” is an especially interesting contronym. It can mean “to cling to something or someone.” You can cleave to the side of a cliff while you’re waiting to be rescued, and marriage vows often talk about cleaving to your spouse.
“Cleave” can also mean “to separate or split something apart.” Nature lovers talk about canyons cleaving mountains, and scientists talk about enzymes cleaving proteins.
What’s fascinating about “cleave,” though, is that it has two meanings because it was originally two different words from two different origins. In Old English, the “split” meaning was “cleofan,” and the “come together” meaning was “clifian.”
Now, you might remember that regular verbs usually have a past tense that ends in -ed. “Look” is a regular verb because the past tense is “looked,” for example. But irregular verbs are formed differently. For example, “drive” is an irregular verb because the past tense isn’t “drived,”—it’s “drove.” “Ring” is an irregular verb because its past tense is “rang.”
Well, the verb “cleave” that means “to cling together” was always a regular verb, but the verb “cleave” that means “to split” was originally an irregular verb. Its past tense was “clave.” (You cleave to your spouse, and to take an example from the OED, “The mercenary soldiers clave to King Henry.”)
But when this irregular verb became regularized around the fourteenth century, the past tense for both meanings was “cleaved,” and people started thinking of them as just one word with opposite meanings instead of thinking of them as two different words.
A fun aside is that its past participle was “cloven,” which you’re only likely to hear today if someone is talking about cloven hooves.
What does ‘chuffed’ mean?
Finally, my favorite contronym is “chuffed.” When you’re chuffed, you can be either pleased or displeased.
I heard it twice in one week, and 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 (in a tone and context that indicated she wasn't upset). I thought, “‘Chuffed’ can’t mean both things.” I’d seen lists of contronyms before, but “chuffed” was never on those lists. But I looked it up in the Oxford English Dictionary, and the entry is very short:
pleased or satisfied
displeased or disgruntled
Contronym it is, although my British friends assure me that the “pleased” meaning is much more common, just like the “approve” meaning of “sanction” is more common.
Have fun and be careful
Janus words are fun to think about. There aren’t a lot of them; most lists I’ve seen have fewer than 30 words. See if you can come up with more on your own, and just know it’s important to make your sentences clear when you use them so people don’t misinterpret your meaning.
It's all downhill from here
Finally, after I recorded this, I realized that there’s a phrase instead of a word that my husband and I use that could almost be considered a Janus phrase, so I’m adding this little bit:
We’ll say, “It’s all downhill from here,” and sometimes that means a good thing, like we finished the hard part, going up the metaphorical hill, and now it will be easier going forward—like a bicyclist coasting downhill—and then sometimes for us it means a bad thing, like things were good, but now it’s going to be bad. It’s all downhill from here.
I was so curious, I did a Twitter poll, and found that a lot of other people use it both ways too.
If someone says, “It’s all downhill from here,” do you interpret that to mean — Mignon Fogarty (@GrammarGirl) December 16, 2020
Note: A reader wrote in to add that "alight" is another interesting Janus word.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.