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Two two-faced words

February 23, 2017

I was thinking today, for no particular reason, about two words, each of which has two meanings which are opposite to each other.

The first of these words is cleave. Its most common meaning is to split (something) in two. That, of course, is where we get the noun cleaver from. The verb has an unusual past tense – cleft – and past participle – cloven; neither of which is much heard now except in fossilised expressions like cleft stick and cloven hoof.

The weird thing is that cleave also has the opposite meaning; used with to it means to stick closely to something: They cleave to the old ways.

The other word I was thinking of is sanction. This can mean to permit or approve: I could not sanction such a course of action. But when used as a noun it means a penalty or punishment: if you get your benefits sanctioned it means the right to receive them is withdrawn.

So it’s as if each word has two faces, looking in opposite directions. Strange.

P.S. May I bring to your attention my comic fantasy YA novel The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers – here is the link: https://unbound.com/books/adam-gowers . Go there and you will see a neat little 2-minute video of me explaining why the time for this novel has come! And if you support it you will get your name in the back and an invitation to the launch party.

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8 Comments
  1. Dominic permalink

    I have a vague recollection that these are called ‘Janus words’ after the Roman god. Janus is normally depicted as having two faces so it’s very appropriate.

    Having googled it, apparently a more technical term is ‘auto-antonym’.

    I really enjoy Back in Time for Dinner by the way!

  2. David permalink

    two from me – one is a bit of a cheat = resign and re-sign. And how about blunt – as in getting straight to the point?

  3. Simon Carter permalink

    As previously mentioned Woody in Cheers mentioned learning the difference between flammable and inflammable “the hard way”.

  4. Simon Carter permalink

    A couple more: Left = departed or remaining, Fast = stuck or moving quickly and depending on one’s politics Right = wrong.

  5. Oh, very good.

  6. Simon permalink

    Brandon my wife and I love you and your family on Back in time! Compulsive viewing. My wife is having 40th bday party very soon. Am putting together a video surprise. It would be great if I could have a surprise video message from you and family to be played on day. She is vegan so eats lots of veg all time like your 40s experience!
    Here’s hoping (fingers crossed)
    Si

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