The Search for Meaning: Janus Words

Ambiguity…did you mean this? Or that? Ambiguity is one of those things editors LOVE to point out in our work! We’re like truffle-hunting pigs sometimes, only instead of truffles we sniff out double meanings.

modern painting of Roman God Janus, who often stands for double meaning

Painting of the Roman God Janus by Tony Grist via Wikimedia Commons

When I’m hired to be a developmental editor, I usually focus on the broad meaning of a work. For example, I try to identify the lesson or “takeaway” from a book manuscript. Or I help make the link from one idea to the next more concrete. But it’s also fun to look at the meaning of individual words writers use.

Cull These Words (Meaning “select”?… “Reject”? Yes!)

An editor colleague of mine, Jeff March, shared recently in his newsletter a list of words that are not only ambiguous but whose meanings actually contradict each other! I’m re-posting an excerpt from his EditPros Newsletter with permission granted to me as a subscriber. Please contact Jeff if you wish to quote or re-post this fabulous list.

Words that have two opposite meanings are known as “auto-antonyms,” “contranyms” (“contronyms” in the United Kingdom), “antagonyms” or “Janus words” — in reference to the Roman mythological god of doorways who was depicted with two faces — one at the front of his head and one at the back.

We compiled this list of 20 contranyms.

dull (as in a blunt object or a blunt knife blade) OR
sharp (as in blunt, pointed criticism)

to fasten securely in place OR
to dart away nervously or unexpectedly OR
to withdraw (as in bolting from a group and withdrawing support)

ready to go, or heading or moving someplace (bound for the mountains) OR
to leap or bounce off a surface OR
restrained, restricted and unable to move (bound by law, bound by ropes)

to fasten or hold together OR
to collapse and crumple, fall apart (the walls buckled under the added weight)

to split, separate, cut apart OR
to cling or adhere together, often in the sense of being faithful

to select, gather and collect from among a large quantity OR
to reject, discard or destroy unwanted components

a traditional standard or social convention adopted and widely accepted by a large group of people (such as religious customs) OR
a product made to order for one person (a custom suit)

to remove dust (dust the furniture) OR
to apply a powder or dust (as in dusting crops or dusting for fingerprints)

moving rapidly OR
firmly attached or stuck and unable to move (the ship held fast to the moorings) OR
abstention from eating

departed (he left yesterday) OR
remaining (only three books are left on the shelf)

dutiful observation and supervision OR
failure to take notice due to inattentiveness, or unintentional omission (failure to count the Fresno location was my oversight)

to cease doing something OR
to repeat something at intervals (a line in a poem or a bar in a song)

to give formal approval and endorsement OR
to penalize or boycott for disobeying a rule or to coerce agreement with demands

to project pictures onto a screen for public viewing (screen a movie) OR
to conceal or protect something (he screens all of her calls; the dressing area was screened off)

extra, additional (the spare bedroom, spare change) OR
inadequate, meager, scanty (the furnishings in the guest room are spare)

means to remove from in reference to a fruit pit or stone (stone the avocado) OR
to throw stones at someone

to hit forcefully (the hammer struck the nail) OR
to miss a pitch in baseball (that’s strike three, and the batter is out)

to soften, weaken, compromise, reduce in intensity (he tempered his fear with determination) OR
to strengthen and increase hardness (by heating or chemically treating a material)

invisible (a transparent skylight) OR
obvious and visible to public scrutiny (the selection process was transparent)

to withstand and safely survive (the dock weathered decades of pounding waves) OR
to sustain damage and decay (the weathered wood needed replacement)

Context usually, but not always, indicates which of two meanings a Janus word is intended to have. Use caution, though, to make certain that your statements will not be subject to possible misinterpretation.

Remember Amelia Bedelia?

One of my favorite characters in children’s literature, Amelia Bedelia, got herself in a tight spot when she misunderstood “dust the furniture” to mean “put dust on furniture.” Why, at my home we un-dust the furniture!, she exclaimed.



Have you ever had an Amelia Bedelia moment because of ambiguous word meanings? Which two-faced words trip you up the most?