Janus Words

Its an understatement to say that the English language is complicated. And in an e-mail to ETRs usage expert, Don Hauptman, Charlie Byrne raised one of our languages most prickly problems: words with contradictory meanings.

“Saturday evening, I was grilling my wifes favorite dish, cedar plank salmon, when I decided it would look nice with a fresh parsley garnish,” Charlie wrote to Don. “And thats when I realized what an odd word garnish is. When you garnish a prepared dish, you are ADDING something to it. But when the IRS or the court garnishes your wages, they are TAKING SOMETHING AWAY.

“Strange, eh?”

Dons response to Charlie put a name to this phenomenon. “There is an entire category of these seemingly contradictory words,” he said. “Theyre called Janus words or contronyms.”

Some other examples of Janus words:

  • cleave (to stick together – or to cut apart)
  • sanction (to endorse – or a punitive action)
  • temper (to soften or mollify – or to strengthen, as with a metal)
  • handicap (an advantage, as in golf – or a disadvantage)
  • lease (to borrow or hire – or to lend or rent out)
[Ed. Note: You probably use Janus words every day. Share your favorite example in our comments section here.]