Janus (JAY-nəs, not to be confused with Janis or Janice) is an important Roman guardian god of doors and gates, the patron of beginnings, ends, and transitions (Gods, Goddesses, and Mythology). Although he’s pictured with two faces, one looking forward and the other backward, he’s not meant to be a trickster god. He has, however, loaned his name to one of the trickiest categories of English words: Janus words.
Also known as contranyms (sometimes contronyms), antagonyms, autoantonyms, or self-antonyms, Janus words appear the same (they’re homographs), yet can have either of two opposite meanings. See? Tricky.
A few common examples (for a longer list, see the Web page “Contronyms.”):
- buckle to keep together (with a buckle/fastener); to fall apart or give way
- cleave to adhere closely to; to split apart
- clip to cut off; to attach to
- dust to add fine particles to; to remove fine particles from
- fast firmly fixed or stuck; moving rapidly
- garnish to embellish by adding to; to take wages from
- overlook to inspect; to miss or ignore
- peruse to read carefully or study; to look over in a cursory manner
- ravel to separate or disentangle; to entangle or confuse
- sanction official approval or approbation; a measure denoting disapproval and seeking abatement
Be sure your context is clear when using Janus words, or your readers may not know whether they’re coming or going.
Image courtesy of Groume.