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Let's Look At The Language

June 18, 2011

I wonder if ancient Romans ever put sanctions on that two-faced Janus

Someone recently asked me if I could explain the meaning of the word "sanction." With a groany little sigh, I responded, "Well, the noun 'sanction' means 'a coercive measure to restrict something' but it can also mean 'official permission to do something.'" I bravely continued: "So the verb 'sanction' can mean either 'to penalize' or 'to approve.'" I wasn't at all surprised to be sarcastically told, "Gee, thanks, that really clears it up."

Sorry, but that's about as clear as it gets. "Sanction" is just one of those twisted words in our language that have two meanings that are opposite. Not just different meanings (as for an organ, which could be a musical instrument or a part of the body), but opposite meanings. This phenomenon goes by a variety of names, including "auto-antonym" (aptly describing the word as an opposite of itself) and "Janus word" (an allusion to the two-faced Roman god).

It's a bit of a linguistic cruelty if you ask me. As if we need any more reasons not to understand each other. As relatively uncommon as the auto-antonym is, "sanction" is far from the only familiar term that belongs to this wily little family. Some are very much everyday words, and their opposite meanings may surprise you -- not that you're unfamiliar with their meanings, but that you may not have thought about them as being auto-antonyms. Let's see:

If you were told to dust the room ("remove particles from the room"), you might use a can of Pledge and a rag, but if it were your sergeant telling you to dust the room for fingerprints ("cover the room with particles"), you had better hope you didn't break out the Pledge.

When you weather storms, you endure them, you survive them. When the storms weather an embankment, they erode it, they destroy it. You could use a barrette to clip your hair to hold it in place, or you could use scissors to clip your hair to make it fall off.

To express relief, you could say, "The hard part's over. It's all downhill now." To express dismay, you could say, "My youth is over. It's all downhill now." To give favorable attention, you could patronize your local businesses. To give unfavorable attention, you could patronize your inferiors.

In spring we seed the pumpkin patch (we plant the seeds), and in fall we seed the pumpkins (we remove the seeds). A turtle is a shelled creature (with a shell), which would probably eat a shelled pistachio (without a shell).

You say your horse is fast, but is that because he runs like the wind or because he's tied to the fence and doesn't run at all? When the doctor fixes you, you're glad to be fully functioning again ... unless you are a dog, because if the doctor fixes you, you'll never be fully functioning again!

When the lights go off, they're obviously not on, but when a siren goes off, isn't it on? When the lights are out, they emit no light, but when the stars are out, they fill the sky with light. Presently (right this moment) the lights in my house are out, but it's almost sunset, so presently (before long; later) they will be turned on.

It would seem, given these illustrative examples, that we use auto-antonyms all the time, and they generally don't give us much reason to be confused. In fact, probably the single-most troublesome so-called Janus word is the instigator of this whole discussion: sanction. If you were to read, "The agency has decided that the earlier sanctions are appropriate," would you know for sure if these sanctions referred to denial rather than approval? Me neither.

Edmeston resident Christine A. Lindberg, senior U.S. lexicographer for Oxford University Press, is the principal content editor of Oxford's American English dictionaries and thesauruses. Opinions expressed by Lindberg in this column are done so independently, and do not necessarily reflect the policies and practices of Oxford University Press. Have a question or comment relating to the English language? E-mail: languagewithlindberg@gmail.com. Selected submissions will be answered here periodically.

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