The Janus words

Updated: Jan 26

While reading an English book, you encounter a word in the sentence which seem utterly confusing. You think that, it contradicts your understanding of that word’s meaning. Such words have two opposing meaning. When the same word has two meanings which are opposite of each other, is called auto-antonym, autantonym, contronym, contranym or Janus word. For example, clip can mean ‘attach’ or ‘cut off’. Similarly, left can mean ‘leave’ or ‘remain’. This phenomenon is called enantiosemy, enantionymy (enantio means opposite), antilogy or autantonymy.


The term autantonym and contronym were coined by Joseph Twadell Shipley in 1960 and Jack Herring in 1962, respectively. The Janus word is named after a Roman god with two faces looking in opposite directions.

Janus words tend to develop out in etymological way or gradual transformation of the word from its traditional meaning to more common usage. In English language, the example of Janus words or autantonyms are more common. Some contranyms result from difference in varieties of English. For example, to table means “to put on debate” in British English whereas in American English, it means “to remove from debate”.

Auto-antonyms exist in many languages. For example, in Hindi, kal meaning ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’. In Latin, sacer has two meaning, ‘sacred’ and ‘accursed’. In German, anhalten means, ‘to stop’ or ‘to continue’.

Following are some example of Janus word in English:

  • Bolt – to fasten/secure, to flee/escape

  • Consult – to seek opinion or advice, to advise or offer expertise

  • Dust – to remove dust, to add dust

  • Fast – firmly fixed, moving with great speed

  • Let – to allow, to prevent

  • Mean – unkind/spiteful, skillful

  • Moot – to discuss or debate, to declare irrelevant or not worth debating

  • Oversee – to inspect, to ignore

  • Peer – a member on the nobility, an equal

  • Ravel – entangle, to separate

  • Refrain – to desist/stop, a repeated line

  • Sanction – to approve, to penalize

  • Strike – to hit/succeed, to miss/fail

  • Table – to put on agenda, to remove from agenda/to postpone dealing with

If you know any other Janus words do share with us in the comment section below. Do sign up go get all the latest updates.

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