There are all sorts of grammar, idioms, and phrasal verbs to learn that are specific to English. This week we’ll be focusing on a particularly (especially) interesting point in English called “Janus words,” or words that are their own opposite.

Janus words are named for Janus, the Roman two-faced god (January is also named for Janus), but are also known as contronyms, antagonyms, or auto-antonyms. Unfortunately there is no trick to help learn these Janus words, so you’ll just have to learn them by heart (memorize) or figure them out in context.

Here are some Janus words with both meanings and some examples to help you out. Don’t stress out (don’t let them upset you) about them too much, though- they are fun!


Meaning #1: to cut something, such as wood

  • The tree was cleaved in two by the lightning.

Meaning #2: to hold on tightly to something, such as an idea

  • The politician cleaved to his moral principles during the debate.


Meaning #1: to move quickly

  • Deer run very fast to get away from predators (animals that eat them).

Meaning #2: to stay put

  • His foot was stuck fast when he stepped into the mud.


Meaning #1: to proceed, move forward

  • When the light turns green, I’ll go.

Meaning #2: to fail

  • I need to buy a new laptop. Mine is starting to go.


Meaning #1: having gone somewhere, not there anymore

  • I left the party when I started feeling tired.

Meaning #2: remaining, still there

  • After I went home, only three people were left.


Meaning #1: to be deactivated

  • She turned her phone off because she didn’t want to be disturbed (distracted, bothered, interrupted).

Meaning #2: to be activated

  • The fire alarm went off when I burned our dinner.


Meaning #1: to overlook or miss something

  • He apologized for the oversight in his report. He meant to put the information in, but forgot.

Meaning #2: to oversee something carefully, especially by a government committee

  • The House Oversight Committee paid close attention to what was going on in Congress.


Meaning #1: formal approval or permission to do something

  • Our boss sanctioned the meeting, so we met with the new customer last week.

Meaning #2: to impose (make, force) restrictions (rules, limits) on someone or something

  • Many countries have imposed sanctions on Russia in the last few weeks.


Meaning #1: to show something, normally a movie

  • The movie was screened privately for everyone who worked on it.

Meaning #2: to hide something from view

  • Patients in a hospital are usually screened off to provide privacy.


Meaning #1: to be ill

  • I was really sick yesterday, which is why I didn’t come into work.

Meaning #2: cool, awesome, amazing- slang, informal speech)

  • Dude, that skateboard trick was really sick!


Meaning #1: to catch your foot on something, causing you to fall

  • She tripped over the fallen tree while we were hiking.

Meaning #2: to walk along lightly, in a carefree way

  • I tripped along the New York sidewalks without a care in the world.

Do you know any other Janus words? Try some of these Janus words for yourself! Why not try using them in a sentence or two in the comments below? We’ll let you know how you did!

Buy Lessons

Did you like this blog? Share it with others! Let us know what YOU think!

Looking for grammar? Try Tricky Adjectives and Adverbs, when to use Which and That, Order of Adjectives, Its vs It’s, and Present Continuous tense!

Erin Duffin lives in Hamburg, is an English teacher, blogger, yoga instructor, loves learning new Janus words, and likes the idea of “going nowhere fast.” Just let that sink in…! 

Looking for more phrases, ways to use English everyday, or get the conversation started? Sign up for our blog or check out the website!