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One Word, Two Opposite Meanings: Terms That Janus Would Have Loved

I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: two-faced words, also known as Janus words — after the Roman god with two faces looking in opposite directions —or contronyms.

RS:We are talking about a word that has developed two opposite meanings, explains linguist and author Richard Lederer.

RICHARD LEDERER: "We know that words over time, almost all words, especially nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs, develop different meanings. And we have some words that have more than a hundred meanings. But contronyms develop opposite meanings. Take the word 'out': just a three-letter word; sometimes an adverb, sometimes a preposition or a particle. When the sun is out, you can see it; when the lights are out, then you can't see them. So it is both visible and invisible."

RS: "Can you give us a few more examples.? Out, you suggested. How about 'fast'?"

RICHARD LEDERER: "Right, and fast can mean moving quickly or firmly in one place. And that's the rarer meaning, but you 'hold fast' to something, it means you stay with it, whereas 'she ran fast' would be somebody moving rapidly. And similarly, 'bolt' —to secure in place, and then also to dart away, so it's both still and moving. 'I'll bolt the door' — you're securing it in place so that it won't move. And 'Did you see the horse bolt, or the bolt of lightning?' That has to do with very rapid movement."

RS: "Well, in these contradictions, did they come later as the word evolved?"

RICHARD LEDERER: "You get one, and then through history it moves along. For example, when I was in law school, we would have moot court arguments, and the idea in moot court was that something was arguable. And I still feel that's the more sacred, puristic meaning. But now, a 'moot point' —and many people say 'mute point,' gulp, don't do that."

AA: "What they mean is m-o-o-t, moot."


RS: "Not m-u-t-e, right?"

RICHARD LEDERER: "Right. But they're thinking if it's 'moot,' you don't speak about it, it's already settled. And it's a little bit like 'academic.' You know, academic, you discuss things, But then we've gotten, and I think this is almost a pessimism sometimes, 'That's academic,' meaning it isn't worth talking about, it's not related to the real word, it's 'of the academy.' And these changes do mirror our history, and I have collected, oh, I'd say about thirty of these. I don't think there are too many more, and I think they are one of the most precious categories."

AA: "Wait, thirty ... which?"

RICHARD LEDERER: "Contronyms."

AA: "That's all? Only about ... "

RICHARD LEDERER: "I ... I don't think there a lot more that are truly contronymic. Maybe up to fifty."

RS: "I like 'dust.' I thought that was a good one."

RICHARD LEDERER: "Right, and tell us about that."

RS: "Well, dust, to remove dust, or you ... "

AA: "Spread, right."

RS: "Spread it around."

AA: "You get dust on the table, and then you go and dust it off, right?"

RS: "No, no, you dust for fingerprints."

RICHARD LEDERER: "Yes, yes, you throw dust around when you're dusting crops. But when you dust the room or the floor, you remove it. And a little bit like trim. When you trim a tree, you add to it, but when you trim a hedge or fat off a piece of meat, you remove it.

"And, again, this may be a collective tearing of hair for second-, third-, fourth-language speakers, but words have a right to change. You take 'sanction' —s-a-n-c-t-i-o-n. And when there is a sanction or you're sanctioning someone, are you censuring it or giving approval? Well, in general, when you say something like 'The governing body plans to sanction the event,' that probably means they're giving its blessing, when you do a verb like that. The other sanction is usually a noun. 'Should our country impose new sanctions on,' then you name the country, then it means that you are condemning it, you are restricting their activity. And as you master the language, you get a sense in context how you're going to be clear with your meaning."

AA: Linguist and prolific author Richard Lederer has a chapter about contronyms in his book "Crazy English." You can read the chapter on our Web site,

RS: Where you can also subscribe to our podcast. And that's WORDMASTER for this week. With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.


Janus Words

In the year 1666 a great fire swept through London and destroyed more than half the city, including three-quarters of St. Paul's Cathedral. Sir Christopher Wren, the original designer of the cathedral and perhaps the finest architect of all time, was commissioned to rebuild the great edifice. He began in 1675 and finished in 1710 -- a remarkably short period of time for such a task. When the magnificent edifice was completed, Queen Anne, the reigning monarch, visited the cathedral and told Wren that his work was “awful, artificial, and amusing.” Sir Christopher, so the story goes, was delighted with the royal compliment, because in those days awful meant “full of awe, awe-inspiring,” artificial meant “artistic,” and amusing, from the muses, meant “amazing.”

That was 300 years ago. Today, the older, flattering meanings of awful, artificial, and amusing have virtually disappeared from popular use. Indeed, the general rule of language is that when a single word develops two polar meanings, one will become obsolete. Occasionally, though, two diametrically opposed meanings of the same English word survive, and the technical term for these same-words-opposite meanings pairs is contronyms. More popularly, they are known as Janus words because the Roman god Janus had two faces that looked in opposite directions.

Here’s a little finger exercise. Remember that I'm the teacher, so you must try to do what I ask. Make a circle with the fingers on your left hand by touching the tip of your index finger to the tip of your thumb. Now poke your head through that circle.

If you unsuccessfully tried to fit your head through the small digital circle, you (and almost any reader) thought that the phrase “poke your head” meant that your head was the poker. But if you raised your left hand with the circle of fingers up close to your forehead and poked your right index finger through that circle until it touched your forehead, you realized that the phrase "poke your head" has a second, and opposite, meaning: that the head is the pokee.

Here are two sentences that will solidify your understanding of how Janus words work:

“The moon is VISIBLE tonight.”

“The lights in the old house are always INVISIBLE.”

Although the two capitalized words are opposite in meaning, both can be replaced by the same word -- out. When the moon or sun or stars are out, they are visible. When the lights are out, they are invisible.

Here are some contronymic sentences that show how words wander wondrously and testify to the fact that nothing in the English language is absolute:

with. alongside; against: a. England fought with France against Germany. b. England fought with France.

clip. fasten; separate: a. Clip the coupon to the newspaper. b. Clip the coupon from the newspaper.

fast. firmly in one place; rapidly from one place to another: a. The pegs held the tent fast. b. She ran fast.

bolt. to secure in place; to dart away: a. I'll bolt the door. b. Did you see the horse bolt?

trim. add things to; cut away: a. Let's trim the Christmas tree, b. Let's trim the hedge.

dust. remove material from; spread material on: a. Three times a week they dust the floor. b. Three times each season they dust the crops.

weather. withstand; wear away: a. Strong ships weather storms. b. Wind can weather rocks.

handicap. advantage; disadvantage: a. What's your handicap in golf? b. His lack of education is a handicap.

commencement. beginning; conclusion: a. Beautiful weather marked the commencement of spring. b. She won an award at her high school commencement.

hold up. support; hinder: a. Please hold up the sagging branch. b. Accidents hold up the flow of traffic.

keep up. continue to fall; continue to stay up: a. The farmers hope that the rain will keep up. b. Damocles hoped that the sword above his head would keep up.

left. departed from; remaining: a. Ten people left the room. b. Five people were left in the room.

dress. put items on; remove items from: a. Let's dress for the ball. b. Let's dress the chicken for cooking.

temper. soften; strengthen: a. You must temper your anger with reason. b. Factories temper steel with additives.

cleave. separate; adhere firmly: a. A strong blow will cleave a plank in two. b. Bits of metal cleave to a magnet.

give out. produce; stop producing: a. A good furnace will give out enough energy to heat the house. b. A broken furnace will often give out.

sanction. give approval of; censure: a. The NCAA plans to sanction the event. b. Should our country impose a new sanction on Libya?

screen. view; hide from view: a. Tonight the critics will screen the film. b. Defensemen mustn't screen the puck.

oversight. careful supervision; neglect: a. The foreman was responsible for the oversight of the project. b. The foreman's oversight ruined the success of the project.

qualified. competent; limited : a. The candidate for the job was fully qualified. b. The dance was a qualified success.

moot. debatable; not worthy of debate: a. Capital punishment is a moot point. b. That the earth revolves around the sun is a moot point.

certain. definite; difficult to specify: a. I am certain about what I want in life. b. I have a certain feeling about the plan.

mortal. deadly; subject to death: a. The knight delivered a mortal blow. b. All humans are mortal.

burn. to destroy; to create: a. Let’s burn the evidence. b. Let’s burn a CD.

buckle. fasten together; fall apart: a. Safe drivers buckle their seat belts. b. Unsafe buildings buckle at the slightest tremor of the earth.

trip. to stumble; to move gracefully: a. Don't trip on the curb. b. Let's trip the light fantastic.

put out. generate; extinguish: a. The candle put out enough light for us to see. b. Before I went to bed, I put out the candle.

unbending. rigid; relaxing: a. On the job Smith is completely unbending. b. Relaxing on the beach is a good way of unbending.

wear. endure through use; decay through use: a. This suit will wear like iron. b. Water can cause mountains to wear.

scan. examine carefully; glance at hastily: a. I scan the poem. b. Each day, I scan the want ads.

fix. restore, remove part of: a. It's time to fix the fence. b. It's time to fix the bull.

seeded. with seeds; without seeds: a. The rain nourished the seeded field. b. Would you like some seeded raisins?

critical. opposed; essential to: a. Joanne is critical of our effort. b. Joanne is critical to our effort.

think better. admire more; be suspicious of: a. I think better of the first proposal than the second. b. If I were you, I'd think better of that proposal.

take. obtain; offer: a. Professional photographers take good pictures. b. Professional models take good pictures.

impregnable. invulnerable to penetration; able to be impregnated: a. The castle was so strongly built that it was impregnable. b. Treatments exist for making a childless woman more impregnable.

wind up. start; end: a. I have to wind up my watch. b. Now I have to wind up this discussion of curious and contrary contronyms.

-- from "Crazy English" (Pocket Books) by Richard Lederer