The old Roman patron saint of January was Janus, the god of thresholds and transitions. In honor of Old Twoface, today’s special word is “contranym.” A contranym, sometimes called a “Janus word,” can take on either of two opposite meanings. One of the nicest examples is “fast,” a word with the nautical connotation of being fixed in place. Curiously, fasten and hasten both mean “make fast.”
I was reminded of contranyms when Matt sent me an email about the word quiddity which means both “essence” and “hairsplitting distinction.” Why would so many words evolve in two different directions at once? In some cases, it’s not much of a mystery. The word “root” can be used in the sense of rooting something out (removing it) or of growing roots (becoming established). But clearly these are just two ways of looking at the same thing. Two specific phrases have been eroded down to an ambiguous noun residue. And if you are skimming, are you removing something or keeping something? It depends on your opinion of the thing being skimmed. Consider that you and your dog have very different views of the word “fixed.” One of you thinks something was improved; the other is likely to take exception.
Other contranyms, like cleave (split) vs. cleave (cling), have separate etymologies that resulted in coincident spelling. The most interesting ones, like fast and temper, are more mysterious. Why should so many words (bolt, bound, stand) connote both motion and inaction? But as I read about these contentious beasts, the thing that interested me the most was the great variety of synonyms for the word contranym itself. The list goes on and on: contranym, contronym, autoantonym, self-antonym, antagonym, antilogy, Janus word, and (most thrillingly) enantiodrome. It is only fitting then that we add our own version to this list: how about poke-yourself-in-the-eye-onym? Or paradoxonym?
Finally, here’s one more nice long list to end with. Now go waste some time. Some more time, I mean.