One Word, Two Opposite Meanings: Terms That Janus Would Have Loved

Download MP3   (Right-click or option-click the link.)

I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: two-faced words, also known as Janus words — after the Roman god with two faces looking in opposite directions —or contronyms.

RS:We are talking about a word that has developed two opposite meanings, explains linguist and author Richard Lederer.

RICHARD LEDERER: "We know that words over time, almost all words, especially nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs, develop different meanings. And we have some words that have more than a hundred meanings. But contronyms develop opposite meanings. Take the word 'out': just a three-letter word; sometimes an adverb, sometimes a preposition or a particle. When the sun is out, you can see it; when the lights are out, then you can't see them. So it is both visible and invisible."

RS: "Can you give us a few more examples.?   Out, you suggested. How about 'fast'?"

RICHARD LEDERER: "Right, and fast can mean moving quickly or firmly in one place. And that's the rarer meaning, but you 'hold fast' to something, it means you stay with it, whereas 'she ran fast' would be somebody moving rapidly. And similarly, 'bolt' —to secure in place, and then also to dart away, so it's both still and moving. 'I'll bolt the door' — you're securing it in place so that it won't move. And 'Did you see the horse bolt, or the bolt of lightning?' That has to do with very rapid movement."

RS: "Well, in these contradictions, did they come later as the word evolved?"

RICHARD LEDERER: "You get one, and then through history it moves along. For example, when I was in law school, we would have moot court arguments, and the idea in moot court was that something was arguable. And I still feel that's the more sacred, puristic meaning. But now, a 'moot point' —and many people say 'mute point,' gulp, don't do that."

AA: "What they mean is m-o-o-t, moot."


RS: "Not m-u-t-e, right?"

RICHARD LEDERER: "Right. But they're thinking if it's 'moot,' you don't speak about it, it's already settled. And it's a little bit like 'academic.' You know, academic, you discuss things, But then we've gotten, and I think this is almost a pessimism sometimes, 'That's academic,' meaning it isn't worth talking about, it's not related to the real word, it's 'of the academy.' And these changes do mirror our history, and I have collected, oh, I'd say about thirty of these. I don't think there are too many more, and I think they are one of the most precious categories."

AA: "Wait, thirty ... which?"

RICHARD LEDERER: "Contronyms."

AA: "That's all? Only about ... "

RICHARD LEDERER: "I ... I don't think there a lot more that are truly contronymic. Maybe up to fifty."

RS: "I like 'dust.' I thought that was a good one."

RICHARD LEDERER: "Right, and tell us about that."

RS: "Well, dust, to remove dust, or you ... "

AA: "Spread, right."

RS: "Spread it around."

AA: "You get dust on the table, and then you go and dust it off, right?"

RS: "No, no, you dust for fingerprints."

RICHARD LEDERER: "Yes, yes, you throw dust around when you're dusting crops. But when you dust the room or the floor, you remove it. And a little bit like trim. When you trim a tree, you add to it, but when you trim a hedge or fat off a piece of meat, you remove it.

"And, again, this may be a collective tearing of hair for second-, third-, fourth-language speakers, but words have a right to change. You take 'sanction' —s-a-n-c-t-i-o-n. And when there is a sanction or you're sanctioning someone, are you censuring it or giving approval? Well, in general, when you say something like 'The governing body plans to sanction the event,' that probably means they're giving its blessing, when you do a verb like that. The other sanction is usually a noun. 'Should our country impose new sanctions on,' then you name the country, then it means that you are condemning it, you are restricting their activity. And as you master the language, you get a sense in context how you're going to be clear with your meaning."

AA:  Linguist and prolific author Richard Lederer has a chapter about contronyms in his book "Crazy English." You can read the chapter on our Web site, voanews.com/wordmaster.

RS:  Where you can also subscribe to our podcast. And that's WORDMASTER for this week. With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.