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Grammar Girl 语法女孩(2012年) Janus Words: “Sanction” and “Cleave”(May 10, 2012)

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Episode 321: May 10, 2012

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When you’re chuffed, are you pleased or displeased? Amazingly, you could be either! “Chuffed” is part of a small set of English words that mean both one thing, and the opposite. They're called Janus words, contronyms, or autoantonyms, and this week we’re going to learn how to use them carefully.

What Are Antonyms?

Words like “chuffed” and “sanction” are called autoantonyms because they are their own antonym.

An antonym is a word with an opposite meaning. For example, “wiggly” is an antonym of “still.” A wiggly baby is the opposite of a still baby. Most words can have lots of antonyms, not just one, so “thrashing” is also an antonym of “still.” A thrashing baby is also the opposite of a still baby.

When you add the prefix “auto,” which means “self,” you get “autoantonym”: a word that has two meanings, allowing it to be its own antonym.

Janus Words: From the Two-Faced Roman God

However, I like the name Janus word, which comes from the Roman god Janus who’s often shown with two faces, one pointing forward and one pointing back. Janus looking in opposite directions at the same time a good metaphor for words that have two opposite meanings.

What Does “Chuffed” Mean?

I covered this topic in The Grammar Devotional, and it came to my attention again a few months ago when I heard the word “chuffed” used twice in one week. I’d never heard it before, so I didn’t know what it meant, and from the context it seemed like one person was using it to mean pleased and the other person was using it to mean irritated.

Tom Merritt said he was “Very well chuffed to have Wil Harris on” his podcast, and Jessica Grose on the Slate XX Gabfest said she’s “not all that chuffed” that there are more male engineers in the world than female engineers. I thought, “‘Chuffed’ can’t mean both those things.” I’d seen lists of Janus words before, but “chuffed” was never on those lists. But I looked it up in the Oxford English Dictionary, and the entry is very short:

a. pleased or satisfied

b. displeased or disgruntled

Janus word it is, although my British friends assure me that the “pleased” meaning is much more common.

“Sanction”: Approve and Punish

Although “chuffed” is an uncommon word in American English, other Janus words are more common and require that you use them carefully.

For example, a couple of weeks ago I told you that the Associated Press had sanctioned the use of “hopefully” as a sentence adverb, meaning that it’s OK to write a sentence like “Hopefully, the clown wasn’t hurt when they shot him out of a canon.” That clearly means that the Associated Press put its stamp of approval on such sentences, but if I had written that the Associated Press sanctioned writers it found using “hopefully” in this way, it would mean that they had punished their writers--taken action against “hopefully” instead of supporting it.

“Sanction” can mean “to approve or ratify something,” but it can also mean to “punish or penalize someone.” However, you’re safer using it to mean “approve.” The Oxford English Dictionary sniffs its nose at the “penalize” meaning, calling it of “doubtful acceptability,” and Bryan Garner, who trains lawyers to write and is the author of Garner’s Modern American Usage, says that lawyers who use the “penalize” meaning risk being misunderstood since the “approve” meaning is dominant in legal circles. So even though “sanction” has two meanings, just like “chuffed,” one is more common and people could be confused if you use the uncommon one.

“Cleave”: Stick Together and Cut Apart

Other Janus words are easier to deal with: “cleave,” for example. “Cleave” can mean to cling to something or someone. You can cleave to the side of a cliff while you’re waiting to be rescued, and marriage vows often talk about cleaving to your spouse.

“Cleave” can also mean to separate or split something apart. Nature lovers talk about canyons cleaving mountains, and scientists talk about enzymes cleaving proteins.

“Dust”: Add and Remove

“Dust” is another straightforward Janus word. If you dust your table, you’re removing dust; but if you dust your cake with powdered sugar, you’re adding sugar.

“Seed”: Add and Remove

Another Janus word that, like “dust,” can mean both add and remove is “seed.” When you seed a tomato, you remove the seeds; but when you seed a lawn, you add seeds.

Have Fun and Be Careful

Janus words are fun to think about. There aren’t a ton of them; most lists I’ve seen have fewer than 30 words. See if you can come up with more on your own, and just know that it’s important to make your sentences clear when you use them so people don’t misinterpret your meaning.

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