By Hugh Rawson
As if reading and writing English is not difficult enough, the language includes a number of words with opposite meanings within themselves. These are often called Janus words, after Janus, the Roman god of doors and beginnings. (January, the first month of the year, is named for him.) Janus usually was represented in art as having two bearded faces that faced in opposite directions, as do doors — and as do Janus words.
Among the most commonly encountered Janus words are cleave, hew, and sanction. For example, one can be said to cleave a block of wood, meaning to split it, or to cleave to one’s principles, meaning to cling to them. Hew is almost synonymous in both senses. When a lumberjack hews a tree, he is cutting it down, but a politician who hews to a party platform, or a party line, is adhering closely to it. (Party line, by the way, usually is associated with the Communist Party, but is a lot older: Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri used it in a political context in a memoir published in 1854.) Sanction, meanwhile, may refer either to formal approval or permission, as in “Some states now sanction gay marriage,” or to an official ban, penalty, or deterrent, as in “The Treasury Department has imposed sanctions on Japan’s biggest organized-crime syndicate, known as the yakuza” (New York Times, Feb. 24, 2012). Read the rest of this entry ?