Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Janus Words

We’ve all heard of synonyms, antonyms, and homonyms, but recently I came across an article about ‘contronyms’, which I'd not heard of before. These are words which, depending on the context, can have opposite meanings. Sometimes they’re called ‘Janus words’ from the Roman god with two faces looking in opposite directions.
The more I studied some of these words, the more fascinated I became – and the more I realised how difficult the English language must be for people learning the language.
For example:
I stood on the large rock, and I started to rock back and forth.
In this case, rock means an immovable mass of stone, and also means a shaking movement.
He dusted the crops; she dusted the furniture.
Dust can mean to add something e.g. fine particles of fertilizer or similar - or it can mean to remove the particles of dust that have settled on furniture etc.
Bound with chains, he sat on the deck of the ship that was bound for the West Indies.
Bound = restrained from movement and bound=moving towards a destination.
He was convicted of first degree murder, although the victim only had first degree burns.
With murder, it’s the most severe type; with burns, the least severe.
The aid workers gave out the food, until the supplies gave out.
Give out can mean provide, or no longer be available.
The gentlemen left, and the ladies were left in the dining room.
Left= departed or remained.
The more you think about these the more interesting it becomes.
Consider these words:Have a think about these:
Fast – meaning stuck, or moving quickly
Screen – show a movie, or hide something
Oversight – overseeing something, or overlooking something
Bolt – to secure or to flee
Hold up – to support or impede.
And for today’s homework :-), think about how these words can be used as opposites:
Isn't the English language wonderful?


  1. Very interesting, says this grammar geek. Coincidentally, I am taking an online grammar class right now.
    I will post these....

  2. Glad you found them interesting, Ana!

  3. Interesting, Paula. I had a French teacher in high school who was Polish. He knew many languages, but always maintained that English was the most difficult because of all the exceptions to the rules.

  4. Hmn? At school we call these homonymns: words that sound and look alike but mean different things. We use the label homophones for words that sound alike but are spelled differently (to, too, two). I've never heard them called contronyms.


  5. English is SUCH a tricky language. I tell my third graders that all the time...especially during spelling!

  6. I always thought homonyms were words spelt differently but sounding the same e.g. here and hear, whereas these words are spelt the same but can have opposite meanings.

  7. Agree that English muct be a nightmare to learn - think of all the different pronunciations of 'ough' in different words!