Benjamin Dreyer is Random House’s executive managing editor and copy chief and the author of “Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.”
Okay, to be sure, it’s the month of resolutions. (Can’t break ’em if you don’t make ’em, as I’ve learned over the years.) Of “New year, new you,” to cite one of the more desolating marketing slogans ever devised. Of the relatively recently invented “Dry January,” apparently designed to further shame those who resolve on Jan. 1 to abstain from alcohol, only to realize by the 10th or 11th that their vow is all wet.
January is also, I’d say, the month of both looking backward and looking forward, especially if you recall your elementary school monthology and the two-faced minor Roman deity, Janus, after whom the month is named. In the depictions I have found, Janus gazes both left and right, not looking especially happy with what he sees in either direction. (He’s also the god of doorways — that’s what his name literally means, in fact: “arched passageway.”)
But do you know of “Janus words,” one of the more amusing quirks in the plenty quirky English language? Janus words, also called contronyms, are words that mean their own opposite. “Cleave” is perhaps the easiest to summon up, meaning both to divide — as with a cleaver, right? — and to adhere, as with peanut butter on the roof of your mouth. And, similarly, “hew,” which takes in both wielding an ax, say, and adhering, as to standards.
Some Janus words have their two-facedness built right in: “Peruse” has meant both “to examine carefully” and “to skim” for almost as long as the word has existed in the English language, with either definition dominating at one point or another. The “skim” meaning, I think, seems to rule right now, notably in the earwormingly delightful opening number of the musical “The Book of Mormon,” with the line “Can I leave this book with you for you to just peruse?” — it’s the “just” that helps us discern the intended meaning.
Other Janusisms develop over time through misapprehension, distortion or sheer cussedness. Consider “oversight,” which originally referred to careful observation and then took a detour into meaning that which careful observation is meant to head off: sloppy omission or carelessness. Theodore Sorensen, the onetime speech- and ghostwriter for John F. Kennedy, once observed of Congress’s failure to keep a proper eye on the CIA, “The word ‘oversight’ has two meanings, and they chose the wrong one.”
A Janus-word-in-the-making is “nonplussed.” For centuries, “nonplussed” meant, well, precisely what it means: perplexed and confused, with a side order of surprised. And yet it has relatively recently also come to mean unperturbed, unconfused, cool as a cucumber salad. How did this happen? Our friends at Merriam-Webster suggest, “This new sense appears to stem from a mistaken belief that the first three letters of ‘nonplus’ are there to indicate that someone is something other than ‘plussed’ (although what being plussed would entail here remains a mystery).”
I’m all for the English language evolving as it desires and seeking its own level, but, really, I have to put my day-job editorial foot down on this one. Otherwise, “nonplussed” will not have two meanings, but none — a case of subtraction by addition.
Climbing out of this linguistic rabbit hole, I sense that my impulse to look back at the things both done and undone in the past year is giving way to hopeful contemplation of what’s to come this year — easy enough to be optimistic, I guess, about things that haven’t yet happened.
I even noticed the other day, walking home from a Sunday matinee, that there was still passably ample daylight at 4:57 p.m. It brought to mind a lyric from a song by Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green intended for a musical version of “The Skin of Our Teeth” by Thornton Wilder. “Someday soon,” the lyric goes, “spring will come again.” But the musical was never produced. Cruel.