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April 14, 2020 9:01 AM   Subscribe

A Janus word is a word with two meanings that seem to contradict each other, and here's a list of some with a wee bit of explanation. I was trying to figure out how English came to use the words propeller, impeller, and expeller to describe three different motions of a fan or rotor, and I found this instead.

So this is an interesting description of the functional differences between 'pellers; but not the naming. As in, if we have a propeller (which pushes away) then why an impeller (which pulls in) and not a con-peller? All of them have the same basic meaning of "to push", so in that sense they're synonyms I guess.
posted by winesong (75 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
 
control-f 'table'. Woot! As someone that's lived in the US and Canada this word has vexed me (I don't think it should be used in a business setting ever - too many businesses are international).

Technically 'won't' isn't one of these, but it's close enough ("Won't" vs "Wont", pronounced the same).

Thanks so much for this post!
posted by el io at 9:13 AM on April 14 [2 favorites]


The two cleaves, for example, are from entirely different roots.

Fun! The two etymologies of cleave.
posted by Jpfed at 9:15 AM on April 14 [8 favorites]


Ever since school I've enjoyed the fact that complimentary colours could either go together really well, or be clashing oppositeㅅ.

Bless you, English, and your anticipation of undermining machine language analysis hundreds of year in advance.
posted by davemee at 9:16 AM on April 14 [9 favorites]


if we have a propeller (which pushes away) then why an impeller (which pulls in) and not a con-peller ?

The ghost of a classics teacher wails, unheard, "We tried!"
posted by clew at 9:22 AM on April 14 [4 favorites]


(Unless impulsive and propulsive are an ancient pair. In which case, the ghost of a classics teacher is settling down to explain.

Maybe both and they can chat with each other.)
posted by clew at 9:24 AM on April 14 [1 favorite]


if we have a propeller (which pushes away) then why an impeller (which pulls in) and not a con-peller

Because that's not really the connotation of a propeller. Propellers also pull in fluid; a propeller propels the device it's attached to, while an impeller impells the fluid to move while standing still.
posted by backseatpilot at 9:25 AM on April 14 [9 favorites]


'Sanction' can mean permit or punish. Not perfect opposites, but pretty close.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 9:35 AM on April 14 [17 favorites]


Because that's not really the connotation of a propeller

This is such a moot subject.
posted by trig at 9:47 AM on April 14 [1 favorite]


Inflammable means flammable? What a country!
posted by star gentle uterus at 9:49 AM on April 14 [8 favorites]


I love this! Instead of going over brain numbing on line grammar lessons with my quarantined kids, we're doing Janus Words!
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 9:50 AM on April 14 [6 favorites]


the connotation of a propeller

...is my next sockpuppet name.
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:51 AM on April 14 [6 favorites]


Inflammable means flammable? What a country!

Tangentially, I was thinking of this as well. It's like going to another country and discovering the word "safe" means "dangerous."

On googling, it seems in America the National Fire Protection Association encouraged people to drop the "In-" in the 1920s to go with "flammable" to make it easier to understand that something *could* catch fire. Naturally, I, like most Americans grew up never seeing the word "inflammable" and when traveling assumed that "inflammable" meant "non-flammable" which is you know, reassuring, when you get passed by a highly overpacked lorry barreling down a dirt road in India at 120 kph with the INFLAMMABLE warning plastered all over it. Wow, that's scary, but at least whatever's in there isn't explosive.

Now, to find examples of other traveling Americans who made this mistake with hilarious results!
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 10:04 AM on April 14 [6 favorites]


That article has a much more expansive definition of a Janus word than I would ever use. Different pronunciations? A textual Janus is a homonym!

Also, for some reason "literally" did not make the cut.
posted by rhizome at 10:11 AM on April 14


From Strunk & White's now fusty Elements of Style:
Flammable. An oddity, chiefly useful in saving lives. The common word meaning "combustible" is inflammable. But some people are thrown off by the in- and think inflammable means "not combustible." For this reason, trucks carrying gasoline or explosives are now marked FLAMMABLE. Unless you are operating such a truck and hence are concerned with the safety of children and illiterates, use inflammable.
posted by sjswitzer at 10:21 AM on April 14 [5 favorites]


Strunk and White also wished to maintain a distinction between "ensure" and "insure," which I am reminded of every time I notice "insure" used in the sense of "to make sure of a thing." As far as I can tell, nobody uses "ensure" anymore and the fact they felt compelled to call it out suggests they didn't back then either.
posted by sjswitzer at 10:25 AM on April 14 [1 favorite]


Here in the US, there is some financial services company names Janus... and I'm always like, that literally means "two-faced"! Who would trust their money with you?!
posted by CPAGirl at 10:43 AM on April 14 [11 favorites]


What about Citation?

If you get pulled over for speeding, the police person might write me a citation, meaning I have to pay a fine.

But when she gets back to the station, she might receive a citation from her boss for doing her job so well.
posted by rebent at 10:49 AM on April 14 [6 favorites]


I've always heard these called auto-antonyms. I found this list lacking in variety. (one of my faves)
posted by Iteki at 10:49 AM on April 14 [2 favorites]


They skipped hardly, which means very much or not at all. I feel nonplussed about it, which is to say, both perturbed and unperturbed.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 10:53 AM on April 14 [1 favorite]


"Fine" can mean 'very good' or 'minimally acceptable'. I tried a sip of the fine wine, but I just thought it was fine.
posted by smokysunday at 10:58 AM on April 14 [4 favorites]


if we have a propeller (which pushes away) then why an impeller (which pulls in) and not a con-peller ?

A friend of mine suggests that a group of people working together in secret for a benevolent goal (say, to plan a surprise party) should be a prospiracy.

In somewhat the same vein, another friend of mine and I decided years ago that if we were to coin a new word each time we got together, within a year or two we could have our own secret and impenetrable dialect. The plan was discarded after a few months but a few of our coinages still linger to this day. One is “quisite,” derived from exquisite: much less than exquisite, but a little better than “disappointing.” I suppose “underwhelming” might be close.

Me: “So tell me: how was your date with Andrew last week?”
She: “Oh, it was quisite.”
posted by ricochet biscuit at 10:59 AM on April 14 [6 favorites]


"For this reason, trucks carrying gasoline or explosives are now marked FLAMMABLE." Those markings only matter for first responders, right? I mean, I'm not driving differently based on markers on a vehicle. First responders know what various markings on vehicles mean.
posted by el io at 11:06 AM on April 14


“quisite,” derived from exquisite

I've never met anyone who was either gruntled or plussed.
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:07 AM on April 14


A gruntling website: http://gruntle.me/
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 11:12 AM on April 14


Speaking of words (so to, er, speak) - I went looking for information on "plussed" vs. "nonplussed" and found this interesting and informative article (also, "demon rum and semantic drift" is another great user name).
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:18 AM on April 14 [1 favorite]


As I've always used and understood the 'peller words, a propeller is a rotor whose primary job is inducing fluid motion parallel to the axis of rotation, an impeller is a rotor whose primary job is inducing fluid motion tangential to the rotor and therefore at right angles to its axis, and an expeller isn't a rotor for fluids per se; it's a screw-driven press for crushing embedded fluids out of seeds and whatnot.

I wonder if every Janus word has gone through a period of being grumped about comparable to what's happening at present with "literally", which apparently now means both "figuratively" and "not figuratively".
posted by flabdablet at 11:50 AM on April 14


One of my favorites is ‘ravel’.
posted by thedward at 12:16 PM on April 14


I wonder if there are other cases where the ironic use of a word, like "literally," became so common as to effectively reverse its conventional meaning. "Totally" is trending that way, I guess. Others?

It's amusing that "very" de-intensifies "unique" because you must be using some other sense of the word than one-of-a-kind.
posted by sjswitzer at 12:18 PM on April 14 [2 favorites]


"Balmy" is another word that has been used ironically so frequently that it almost means its own opposite.
posted by Foosnark at 12:21 PM on April 14


From the website:

In other cases it's simply a matter of transitive and intransitive uses: "He left" is the opposite of "he was left," but the sense connection is clear.

This is incorrect. The contrast shown here is between active and passive voice, not transitive and intransitive.
posted by demonic winged headgear at 12:49 PM on April 14 [2 favorites]


UK (TV*) Countdown host, usually in Dictionary Corner, Susie Dent's Twitter has a good few words where we only have their negations: ruth(less), kempt, duly, gruntled and whelmed. (citation)
*: It's heartening that the "Street Countdown" community are observing the lockdown.
posted by k3ninho at 12:55 PM on April 14 [2 favorites]


I've also heard the Janus words called "contronyms" or "antagonyms".

A couple of other examples:
To "bracket" can mean to put together, or to set apart.
To "trip" (e.g., "through a field") can mean either to walk/run, or to fail to walk/run.
posted by demonic winged headgear at 12:56 PM on April 14 [2 favorites]


I love the sign on a bridge downtown that reads, "NO FISHING OFF THE BRIDGE," which suggests that "off," "on," and "from" can be used interchangeably in this case. It's also fun to imagine debating with a cop that fishing while standing on the bridge is the only legal way to fish those waters, except that would not actually be fun.
posted by Caxton1476 at 12:58 PM on April 14 [3 favorites]


There are quite a few historical examples of this as well, which might not qualify as Janus words. For instance, in Othello, Act 1, Scene 2, Othello says "...and my demerits / May speak unbonneted to as proud a fortune / As this that I have reach'd" -- where "demerits" has a positive meaning.
posted by demonic winged headgear at 1:00 PM on April 14 [1 favorite]


And of course, "peruse" gets used mean 'to read closely' or 'to read the opposite of closely' (i.e., superficially).
posted by demonic winged headgear at 1:04 PM on April 14 [1 favorite]


Here in the US, there is some financial services company names Janus... and I'm always like, that literally means "two-faced"! Who would trust their money with you?!
I've noticed that one, and also "Morningstar". Like, one of the names of the Devil.

Like, really?
posted by notsnot at 1:20 PM on April 14 [5 favorites]


Here in the US, there is some financial services company names Janus... and I'm always like, that literally means "two-faced"! Who would trust their money with you?!

It's the literate version of "Fraud Guarantee..."
posted by kaibutsu at 1:38 PM on April 14 [3 favorites]


A word I just learned 2 weeks ago was agonism... as in antagonism. This site doesn't have them matched, and I don't think they are quite Janus words, but I also don't think they are opposites.

From the site: agon: from Greek agon "struggle, trial,"
And antagonize: from Greek antagonizesthai "to struggle against, oppose, be a rival,"

Thoughts?
posted by Snowishberlin at 1:57 PM on April 14 [1 favorite]


between active and passive voice, not transitive and intransitive.

I prefer using the intransigent voice.
posted by Greg_Ace at 2:25 PM on April 14 [5 favorites]


In US cyclist circles, clipless pedals are confusing to say the least.
posted by BrotherCaine at 2:29 PM on April 14 [5 favorites]


I've never met anyone who was either gruntled or plussed.

You might need to hear this song.
posted by jackbishop at 2:29 PM on April 14 [1 favorite]


"literally", which apparently now means both "figuratively" and "not figuratively".

No, literally means either not-figuratively or is used as an intensifier.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 12:25 AM on April 15


As far as I remember my A-level Greek drama 'agonist' is the central character of a struggle while their opponent is therefore 'anti the agonist' = 'antagonist'. So true opposites. Satan is god's antagonist in Paradise Lost.
posted by glasseyes at 2:14 AM on April 15 [1 favorite]


ps I think we were fleetingly introduced to Sophocles, Euripides etc in translation by way of understanding the history of European drama -> thence to being able to get a handle on stylists like say Milton, Eugene O'Neil etc. It was a long time ago and I don't remember very well.
posted by glasseyes at 2:18 AM on April 15


Which brings another question, which I have just looked up: As nouns the difference between agonist and protagonist is that agonist is someone involved in a contest or battle (as in an agon) while protagonist is the main character in a any story, such as a literary work or drama.
posted by glasseyes at 2:23 AM on April 15


jackbishop, what a great song. And yet the youtube subtitles are useless.
posted by glasseyes at 2:30 AM on April 15


As least in my town, the TV weatherpeople will predict that the next day's weather will be "milder" - by which, they always mean "hotter."

Makes me crazy...
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 6:02 AM on April 15


literally means either not-figuratively or is used as an intensifier

So when I knock and poke my head around young ms. flabdablet's door, and she eventually looks up from her phone and sees me and acts startled and then takes out an earbud and tells me I just scared her literally to death, she actually is dead and needs me to appreciate the emotional heft of that?
posted by flabdablet at 7:50 AM on April 15 [1 favorite]


No, what she needs is a grammar lesson - which I'm sure she'd receive with grace and heartfelt thanks.
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:45 AM on April 15 [2 favorites]


One I've noticed is "contemporary," which can mean "right now, in contrast to the historical period being discussed" or "from the historical period being discussed"
posted by mabelstreet at 9:08 AM on April 15 [1 favorite]


I've never met anyone who was either gruntled or plussed.

The Firefly board game includes the possibility that some of your crew may become unhappy with the uses to which they are put; they wind up with a little sad face marker on them and they are, in the term used by the rules, “disgruntled.” A second disgruntlement one someone already disgruntled means they quit. Fortunately there are ways to remove this condition. At my table, we have always termed this “regruntling.”
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:53 AM on April 15 [1 favorite]


I love the sign on a bridge downtown that reads, "NO FISHING OFF THE BRIDGE," which suggests that "off," "on," and "from" can be used interchangeably in this case.

Nice.

A few blocks from me, my street crosses a highway some ten metres below. Signs at either end of the bridge instruct that BICYCLISTS MUST DISMOUNT ACROSS BRIDGE, which I can only parse as “it’s okay to ride your bicycle on the bridge, but at the far side you have to get off the bike and walk it along.” Sure, Jan.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:57 AM on April 15 [1 favorite]


At my table, we have always termed this “regruntling.”

Knowing that is oddly engruntling.
posted by flabdablet at 12:03 PM on April 15 [1 favorite]


I'm feeling a bit engruntulated myself.
posted by Greg_Ace at 12:35 PM on April 15


Over gives overlook and oversight, both of which have opposite senses: You might cast your gaze over something and it escapes notice as beneath your sight. Or you may stand over something the better to observe it minutely, or perhaps that sense is via the notion of looking it "all over," that is, "completely."

I remember standing on the overlook on the windward side of the Pali, and having become literally entranced by the view, overlooked the passage of time. It was, like, totally.
posted by mule98J at 2:22 PM on April 15 [1 favorite]


So when I knock and poke my head around young ms. flabdablet's door, and she eventually looks up from her phone and sees me and acts startled and then takes out an earbud and tells me I just scared her literally to death, she actually is dead and needs me to appreciate the emotional heft of that?

Is this a serious question or a joke which I don't get? "Scared to death" is an idiom and therefore by definition not literal, and "literally" is, yes, used as an intensifier for expressing that she was really quite startled, and not just mildly or somewhat.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 4:40 AM on April 16


I'm feeling a bit engruntulated myself

Good to hear, good to hear.

How's your dudgeon been lately? Mine's a tad high; might look into taking an absquatulant for it.
posted by flabdablet at 9:49 AM on April 16


Is this a serious question or a joke which I don't get?

It's an issue I could literally care less about.
posted by flabdablet at 9:53 AM on April 16 [1 favorite]


Arrgh - I try not to be a prescriptivist because I know it's ultimately a doomed quest, but for whatever reason the phrase "I could care less" just really grates on my nerves.
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:16 AM on April 16


Yeah, well you also could of kept it to yourself.
posted by rhizome at 11:53 AM on April 16


That ain't hardly no fun.
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:57 AM on April 16


Even so, for all intensive purposes, I might as well of.
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:58 AM on April 16


Who would win in a fight, an intensive porpoise or a damp squid?
posted by flabdablet at 1:48 PM on April 16 [1 favorite]


They'd both win as sockpuppet names!
posted by Greg_Ace at 2:22 PM on April 16


It isn't quite contradictory, but logos refers both to reason and corporate branding. Sort of a high/low thing going on there.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 3:50 PM on April 16


Who would win in a fight, an intensive porpoise or a damp squid?

Such a fight would be very popular and tickets to see it would be in great demand. These tickets would cost a nominal egg.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:58 AM on April 17 [2 favorites]


As long as the ASPCA doesn't nip it in the butt.
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:39 AM on April 17


I guess we'll all have to await the outcome with baited breath. which seems oddly appropriate in this case
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:41 AM on April 17


As long as the ASPCA doesn't nip it in the butt

That really gets on my goat. If they think they can get away with not towing the line they've got another thing coming. Somebody needs to reign them in.
posted by flabdablet at 11:40 AM on April 17


They just don't want to be taken for granite.
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:46 AM on April 17


I'll see them in quartz.
posted by flabdablet at 12:20 PM on April 17


Hopefully before the statue of limitations runs out.
posted by Greg_Ace at 12:32 PM on April 17


(and if you've ever seen a statue run out....)
posted by Greg_Ace at 12:36 PM on April 17


That would be the marble of the ages.
posted by flabdablet at 12:47 PM on April 17 [1 favorite]


Just came across this in Michael Marder's Dust (one of the Object Lessons books), and thought I'd add it here:

“Dusting is also undusting, to revive a nearly obsolete Shakespearian word. [...] Georg Wilheim Friedrich Hegel admired words with mutually exclusive significations. The reason behind his enthusiasm was that, in them, he espied concrete linguistic supports for his speculative dialectical philosophy, dependent upon the self-negation of concepts. I am certain that he would have loved dusting, because its substantive sense subverts its verbal counterpart and because the verb both affirms and denies itself.”
posted by oulipian at 8:00 AM on April 23


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