These Words Are Their Own Opposites

Definition and Examples of Janus Words in English

Janus word
Janus, the Roman god of gates and doorways and of beginnings and endings. (altrendo travel/Getty Images)

A Janus word is a word (such as cleave) having opposite or contradictory meanings depending on the context in which the word is used. Also called antilogy, contronym, contranym, autantonym, auto-antonym, and contradictanyma.

Examples and Observations

  • To weather can mean "to endure" or "to erode."
  • Sanction can mean "to allow" or "to prohibit."
  • Fix can mean "a solution" (as in "find a quick fix") or "a problem" ("left us in a fix").
  • Clip can mean "to separate" (as in "clip the coupon from the paper") or "to join" (as in "clip the answer sheets together").
  • Left as a verb in the past tense means "to have gone"; as an adjective, it means "remaining."
  • Wear can mean "to last under use" or "to erode under use."
  • Buckle can mean "to fasten" or "to bend and then break."
  • The verb bolt can mean "to secure, lock" or "to start suddenly and run away."
  • Screen can mean "to conceal" or "to show."
  • Fast can mean "moving quickly" (as in "running fast") or "not moving" (as in "stuck fast").
  • The Verb Table in British English and American English
    "In British English, when you table a document, you add it to the agenda for a meeting, usually by placing copies on the table at the beginning of the meeting because it was not ready in time to be sent out. In American English, however, when you table a document, you remove it indefinitely from the agenda. Writers on both sides of the Atlantic should be aware of this possible source of confusion."
    (R.L. Trask, Mind the Gaffe! Harper, 2006)
  • Literally
    "[T]his usage of literally [to mean figuratively] . . . is not the first, nor will it be the last, instance of a word that is used in a seemingly contradictory way. There are many such words, and they arise through various means. Called 'Janus words,' 'contranyms,' or 'auto-antonyms,' they include cleave ('to stick to' and 'to split apart') . . . and peruse and scan (each meaning both 'to read closely' and 'to glance at hastily; skim'). Usage writers often criticize such words as potentially confusing and usually single out one of the meanings as 'wrong,' the 'right' meaning being the older one, or the one closer to the word's etymological meaning, or the one more frequent when 18th-century grammarians began to examine language systematically."
    (Jesse Sheidlower, "The Word We Love to Hate." Slate, Nov. 1, 2005)
  • Factoid
    "[Factoid is a] term created by Norman Mailer in 1973 for a piece of information that becomes accepted as a fact, although it is not actually true; or an invented fact believed to be true because it appears in print. Mailer wrote in Marilyn: 'Factoids . . . that is, facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper, creations which are not so much lies as a product to manipulate emotion in the Silent Majority.' Lately, factoid has come to mean a trivial fact. That usage makes it a contranym (also called a Janus word) in that it means both one thing and its opposite . . .."
    (Paul Dickson, "How Authors From Dickens to Dr. Seuss Invented the Words We Use Every Day." The Guardian, June 17, 2014)
  • Schizophrenic Words
    "Best and worst both mean 'to defeat.' Cleave means both 'to cling to' and 'to split apart.' Fast means both 'speedy' and 'immobilized' (as well as several other things). Dress means to put on apparel, as a person does, or to take it off, as is done to a chicken. And while you are reflecting on such oddities, you may as well know that bleach means also 'blacking'; bluefish also 'greenfish'; bosom also 'depression'; emancipate also 'to enslave'; and help also 'to hinder.'"
    (Willard R. Espy, The Garden of Eloquence: A Rhetorical Bestiary. Harper & Row, 1983)