January and Contronyms

Say hi to Janus.


Janus is an ancient Roman god. His occupation is quite unimpressive. He keeps the gate of Heaven, so he becomes the god of…doors and gates. Now despite doing a mundane job that has nothing to do with the start or the change of anything, Janus the security guard is often associated with beginnings and transitions. He is depicted with two faces; one looking back to the past and one looking forward to the future. January is named after this dude. The concept of him being two-faced is now interpreted as one retrospecting on the year gone by and the other facing forward to the coming year.

Janus doesn’t mind very much that his name is borrowed to mark the first month of the Gregorian calendar, along with his fellow cool gods such as Mars, the god of war for March, Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty for April, Juno, the chief Roman goddess for June, etc. After all, he is a deceptive two-faced dude, who knows for sure what he thinks or believes. The term Janus-faced is often used to characterize people who are deceitful and duplicitous. That isn’t all, the western culture has milked his name to the last bit. A whole class of words in English known as contronyms are also called Janus words. Analogously, Janus words are contrasting and two-faced.

A contronym is one single word that consists two contradictory meanings simultaneously. To name a few, let’s say we dust furniture to remove dust particles, but we also dust cookies with powdered sugar to spread particles over it. If one overlooks something, he either fails to notice it or carefully supervises it. To cleave to something means to stick to it; conversely, cleave can also mean to split apart. Likewise, sanction as a verb means to authorize in some context and to penalize in others; as a noun, a sanction is sometimes a punishment, other times an approval. We clip things together to attach them but when we clip a photo from a magazine, we cut it out. Oh, and did you know that literally now means figuratively? As in “OH my god, that movie LITERALLY blew my head.” Nope, there wasn’t any explosion from that upper part of the body that contains the brain. “Literally” in this context no longer defines a matter in its literal sense; it is, in fact, used as a hyperbole to emphasize exaggeration.

I’ll end this post with a very common contronym, finish. Say, you are putting a finish on the surface of something, you are perfecting it, burnishing it so it comes out as complete as a whole. However, finish can also mean to destroy, to annihilate, to exterminate until nothing is left.
And this post is finished.