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70. Janus Words

The Antagonym Paradox


The Question:

  1. “From then on, it was all downhill!”

  2. “Albert rents the apartment.”

  3. “Berta is holding me up”

  4. “Cecil consulted with the king.”

  5. “The reception was cool.”

  6. Censors screened the movie.

  7. “David fought with Z.”

We know what these stements means, don’t we.


The Paradox:

No, we don’t.

(a) Did it become easy going, or was it getting worse?

(b) Is Albert a tenant or a landlord?

(c) Is Berta supporting me or impeding my progress?

(d) Did Cecil give or get advice?

(e) Was the reception glacial, or was it a ‘hot party’?

(f) For the public, or from minors?

(g) Is Z a comrade-in-arms, an enemy, or a sword?



The Roman god Janus is, usually depicted as a two-faced statue, which symbolizes duality, as, for example, creation and destruction, beginning and end, light and darkness, past and future. So-called Janus words have two contradictory meanings. They are often also referred to as antonyms or contronym.

Janus words are a subset of the set of homonyms, words that sound the same, but have different meanings:

“The price of entry to the country fair was fair.”

“We have a reservation, but I have my reservations about that restaurant.”

What distinguishes Janus words from other homonymns is that they do not only have different, but opposite meanings.



Janus words may give rise to confusion and often it is only the context that makes clear what is meant. Sometimes, even the context may not suffice. For example, oversight may refer to attentive and responsible care, or to an inadvertent omission or error. To overlook may mean to watch and control an operation, or it may mean not to notice something. An action that is sanctioned may mean that it is approved or that it is punished.

This is what makes machine translations so tricky: without the context it is impossible to determine what is meant by a Janus word and it takes advanced aritificial intelligence to determine the sense. There are other words, and pairs of words, that may lead artificial intelligence or human intelligence astray.

Homophones: words that sound the same, have different meaning and different spelling:

A pair of pears indicates two pieces of fruit.

“I can see the sea from afar.”

I led the people to the store of lead.

While I am overseas, my partner will oversee the operations

Homographs: words that are spelled the same but have different meanings:

You don’t need to lie down to tell a lie.

Heteronyms, words that have the same spelling but different meanings when they are pronounced differently:

Tear in the eye, tear up a pice of paper///.

The wind, wind a clock

I lead the people to the store of lead.

Some times the difference in pronounciation is very subtle. Take Andrzej who tells his tutor “I’m trying to polish up my English.” The tutor’s answer? “No need, your English is Polish enough.” (POlish versus POUlish, get it?)

Some heteronyms are pronounced the same and only the stress is on a different vowel:

The garden was used to prodUce prOduce.

The insurance was invAlid for the Invalid.

The soldier decided to desErt his post in the dEsert.

Some words can belong to several categories: ‘fair’ is both a homonym and a homograph. ‘Tear’is both a homograph and a heteronym. ‘Sea/see’ are both homonyms and homphones. And, as pointed out above, Janus words are homonyms that do not only have different, but opposite meanings.

Some Janus words are meant to be ironic or to add emphasis. ‘Pretty ugly’ is not a contradiction in terms, but the ‘pretty’ is meant to drive home ‘ugly’. The same holds for ‘incredibly trustworthy’. ‘Cool’ or ‘in’ are used as ironic Janus word, as, for example, in ‘this fireplace is cool’ or ‘outdoor activities are in’.

Michael Jackson’s hit “Bad” is a case in point. As the singer tells in an interview, it is a song about a kid from a bad neighborhood who gets to go away to a private school. “He comes back to the old neighborhood, when he's on a break from school, and the kids from the neighborhood start giving him trouble. He sings, 'I'm bad, you're bad, who's bad, who's the best?' He's saying when you're strong and good, then you're bad.”[1]


Technical supplement:

My own pet-peeve is about what I call cancellogisms or revoke-o-nyms, namely words which have a prefix for emphasis, and then a pre-prefix that cancels and revokes the emphasis.

For example, why ‘disentangle’ ropes, when you could simply tangle them? Why disembark from a ship, when you could simply ‘bark’ the barque (French for small boat)? Why does some information remain undisclosed when it could simply remain closed? Why are some colleagues who like to work on their own, considered uncooperative, when they could simply be said to be operative? Why are officials unconcerned when they could just be ‘cerned’ (from Latin cernere to perceive, comprehend)?


© George Szpiro, 2019




[1] Jackson, Michael (1988). Moonwalk. Doubleday.

Corrections, comments, observations:     

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