A word (such as cleave) having opposite or contradictory meanings.
Etymology:From the Latin Janus, the god who faces both ways
Examples and Observations:
- To weather can mean "to endure" or "to erode."
- Sanction can mean "to allow" or "to prohibit."
- Fix can mean "a solution" (as in "find a quick fix") or "a problem" ("left us in a fix").
- Clip can mean "to separate" (as in "clip the coupon from the paper") or "to join" (as in "clip the answer sheets together").
- Left as a verb in the past tense means "to have gone"; as an adjective, it means "remaining."
- Wear can mean "to last under use" or "to erode under use."
- Buckle can mean "to fasten" or "to bend and then break."
- The verb bolt can mean "to secure, lock" or "to start suddenly and run away."
- Screen can mean "to conceal" or "to show."
- Fast can mean "moving quickly" (as in "running fast") or "not moving" (as in "stuck fast").
- The Verb Table in British English and American English
"In British English, when you table a document, you add it to the agenda for a meeting, usually by placing copies on the table at the beginning of the meeting because it was not ready in time to be sent out. In American English, however, when you table a document, you remove it indefinitely from the agenda. Writers on both sides of the Atlantic should be aware of this possible source of confusion."
(R.L. Trask, Mind the Gaffe! Harper, 2006)
"[T]his usage of literally . . . is not the first, nor will it be the last, instance of a word that is used in a seemingly contradictory way. There are many such words, and they arise through various means. Called 'Janus words,' 'contranyms,' or 'auto-antonyms,' they include cleave ('to stick to' and 'to split apart') . . . and peruse and scan (each meaning both 'to read closely' and 'to glance at hastily; skim'). Usage writers often criticize such words as potentially confusing and usually single out one of the meanings as 'wrong,' the 'right' meaning being the older one, or the one closer to the word's etymological meaning, or the one more frequent when 18th-century grammarians began to examine language systematically."
(Jesse Sheidlower, "The Word We Love to Hate," Slate, Nov. 1, 2005)
- Schizophrenic Words
"Best and worst both mean 'to defeat.' Cleave means both 'to cling to' and 'to split apart.' Fast means both 'speedy' and 'immobilized' (as well as several other things). Dress means to put on apparel, as a person does, or to take it off, as is done to a chicken. And while you are reflecting on such oddities, you may as well know that bleach means also 'blacking'; bluefish also 'greenfish'; bosom also 'depression'; emancipate also 'to enslave'; and help also 'to hinder.'"
(Willard R. Espy, The Garden of Eloquence: A Rhetorical Bestiary. Harper & Row, 1983)