Janus Words: “Sanction” and “Cleave”

Context matters with contronyms.

Mignon Fogarty,
January 4, 2018
Episode #602

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‘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:

  1. pleased or satisfied

  2. 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.

a pinterest image that lists six contronyms

Further Reading

Plainly Chuffed (Stan Carey)
English English (Verbatim Magazine)

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.


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