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Janus words

Janus words quiz

January is named after the Roman God Janus, the god of comings and goings. Janus was always depicted with two faces looking different ways and was the guardian of doorways and gates, often carved on entrances. You can see why even today he would be an apt representative for January, a time when people look forwards and backwards – a month that begins with ‘best of 2013’ lists, as well as an array of, normally over ambitious, new year’s resolutions for the future.

As well as giving his name to January, Janus’s famous ‘double visage’ proved to be a useful literary device over the ages and Janus-faced was used metaphorically by writers including Milton and Shelley. Janus has also been used to describe materials that do literally have double facings or two way actions, including janus cloth, a reversible material, and janus lock, one that could be fitted onto either a left or right opening door and operated from either side. It was this idea of contrast, and two different aspects that gave rise to the term janus words, also known as contronyms – words that have two opposite meanings. For example, along with its other senses, the verb seed has two contradictory senses: ‘to remove seeds from a fruit’ and ‘to sow seeds’. The former developed 100 years ago – a mere infant compared to the earlier meaning, evidence of which goes back to 1440.

Slang also has a habit of producing new Janus words: wicked meaning ‘evil’ dates from Middle English, but it can also be a synonym for excellent or awesome. F Scott Fitzgerald was one of the first to use wicked in this sense, in This Side of Paradise, 1920:

Tell ’em to play “Admiration”!’ shouted Sloane… ‘Phoebe and I are going to shake a wicked calf.’

More recently, and no doubt to the confusion of many a parent, sick can mean ‘offensively unpleasant’ or it can mean ‘excellent’. Lately, the use of literally to mean, well, ‘not literally’ has raised the hackles of many a linguistic purist, even though the evidence points to this sense being around since 1769.

Can you guess the Janus words below from their two different meanings?

Highlight the blank boxes to reveal the answers.

bolt run away suddenly, typically from fear to fasten
weather wear away or change withstand something
fast firmly fixed or attached moving or capable of moving at high speed
left went away from remaining
seed sow with seeds remove the seeds from something
screen show or broadcast conceal, protect, separate, or shelter
dust remove the dust cover lightly with a powdered substance
sanction give official permission or approval impose a penalty on someone
cleave split or sever stick fast to
custom usual specially made, bespoke

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