What are Janus words?

Words like cleave, sanction and oversight are called contronyms and auto-antonyms. They are also known as Janus words. Why?

Unbelievable as it may sound, these are words used in two opposite senses. Yes, each can mean the opposite of the other! Take the word “dust”. And use it this way:
She baked a sponge cake and dusted the top with powdered sugar
. This means she coated the top, or added a light layer to the top with powdered sugar.

Now, read this: “
The maid dusted the furniture before changing the cushion covers
.” This obviously means “to remove dust.” So you can safely call “dusting” a Janus word.

These words are also called auto-antonyms because an antonym is a word with an opposite meaning. For example, “calm” is an antonym of “agitated.” A calm sea is the opposite of a sea frothing and agitated with strong waves and foam. Words usually have several antonyms, not just one. How many opposites or antonyms can you find for “clean”? Dirty, untidy, littered, unswept, unclean? But auto-antonyms are their own “opposites.”

When you add the prefix “auto,” which means “self,” you get “auto-antonym”: a word that is its own antonym.

Another good example of auto-antonym is the word “sanction”. A few years ago, the Associated Press had “sanctioned” the use of “hopefully” as a sentence adverb, meaning it is all right/fine/ok to write a sentence that goes: “Hopefully, my brother saved some chocolate for the rest of us.” The Associated Press put its stamp of approval on such sentences. Now read the same sentence written in a slightly different way: The Associated Press sanctioned writers it found using “hopefully” as an adverb.” This means it had punished its writers – had taken action against “hopefully” being used as an adverb instead of supporting it. The news item says: “The U.S. will impose sanctions on Iraq.”

So, “sanction” can mean “to approve or ratify something,” but it can also mean to “punish or penalise someone.” However, the general usage is to mean “to approve.” The “penalise” meaning is new, people began using it only in the 1950s. The Oxford English Dictionary does not fully endorse the use of “sanction” to mean “punish”, calling it of “doubtful acceptability.” Bryan Garner, who trains lawyers to write and has written the book Garner’s Modern English Usage, says that lawyers who use the “penalise” meaning risk being misunderstood since the “approve” meaning is dominant in legal circles. So even though “sanction” has two meanings, one is more common, and readers may be confused if you use the uncommon one.

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