Janus Words

Roman God Janus Statue, Marin Magazine

Oftentimes people say one thing but mean another, but there are also certain words with conflicting definitions that do this on their own. Named after the two-faced Roman god Janus, these words are also known as contranyms or antagonyms and are their own opposites. A commonly cited example is “cleave,” which can refer to splitting something apart or uniting two things. How did this jumble happen?

History provides several answers. Sometimes a word had a specific meaning that become broader over time. It has also happened the other way, where a word that was once broad gained a more specific meaning that resulted in two contradictory definitions.

“Oversight” is another good example. It originally referred to watchful supervision, but through an extension of meaning, people started using it to refer to the thing that supervision eliminates. Listed below are a series of Janus words — are you familiar with one we missed? Let us know.



To secure, or to flee​

Heading to a destination, or restrained from movement

To connect, or to break or collapse

To fasten, or detach

A common practice, or a special treatment

To add fine particles, or to remove them

Quick, or stuck or made stable

Excellent, or acceptable or good enough

To repair, or to castrate Garnish To furnish, as with food preparation, or to take away, as with wages

An advantage provided to ensure equality, or a disadvantage that prevents equal achievement
Hold up

To support, or to impede Overlook To supervise, or to neglect

Monitoring, or failing to oversee

An immobile mass of stone or figuratively similar phenomenon, or a shaking or unsettling movement or action

To present, or to conceal

To patronize a business in order to purchase something, or to sell something

Invisible, or obvious

To decorate, or to remove excess from

A journey, or a stumble


Kasia Pawlowska

Kasia Pawlowska loves words. A native of Poland, Kasia moved to the States when she was seven. The San Francisco State University creative writing graduate went on to write for publications like the San Francisco Bay Guardian and KQED Arts among others prior to joining the Marin Magazine staff. Topics Kasia has covered include travel, trends, mushroom hunting, an award-winning series on social media addiction and loads of other random things. When she’s not busy blogging or researching and writing articles, she’s either at home writing postcards and reading or going to shows. Recently, Kasia has been trying to branch out and diversify, ie: use different emojis. Her quest for the perfect chip is never-ending.