Verbal Energy

Janus words in the language of dreams

Words with mutually contradictory meanings indicate how our minds cope with complexity.

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When I heard on the radio one evening that Harvard professor Marjorie Garber was to speak at a local bookstore on her newly published book of essays, "Loaded Words," I decided I had to jump onto the Red Line and go hear her.

She is a Shakespearean scholar – of the kind who can fold Alfred E. Neuman and Don Drap­er into an essay on the Bard.

One of her overarching themes in the book is that as individual words evolve, they remain "loaded" with the underlying metaphor of their original meaning. "Those hidden meanings," she said at the bookstore, "can come back to haunt you."

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One of my takeaways from her talk was a tidbit on Sigmund Freud's interest in what are often known as "Janus words," words with mutually contradictory meanings. How does "oversight" mean both "supervision" and "neglect"? How can "sanction" mean both "to permit" and "to punish"?

Freud was interested in what these words say about how the mind works. As Ms. Garber explains in one of her essays, "In 1909, Sigmund Freud came upon a pamphlet written by a specialist in ancient languages that seemed to have an uncanny resonance with his own recent work on dreams." The philologist, Karl Abel, contended that "the vocabulary of ancient Egypt and the 'Semitic and Indo-European languages' contained a number of key words whose meanings diverged in apparently opposite directions." To Freud, she says, "this precisely mirrored – and seemed to validate – a claim he had made in 'The Interpretation of Dreams' about how the unconscious mind handles antithetical meanings."

Garber then quotes Freud: "The way in which dreams treat the category of contraries and contradictories is highly remarkable. It is simply disregarded. 'No' seems not to exist so far as dreams are concerned. They show a particular preference for combining contraries into a unity or for representing them as one and the same thing. Dreams feel themselves at liberty, moreover, to represent any element by its wishful contrary...."

Garber's Exhibit A for analyzing these Janus words, also known as contranyms or autoantonyms, is a word Freud didn't actually use much: madness.

"From its beginnings the English word mad was already forked: pointing at once toward insanity and toward infatuation," Garber writes. Mad has a third sense, too: angry, irate. Although widely seen as colloquial, this meaning dates to the early 15th century. "As alternative terms – wod or wood for 'insane,' wroth for 'angry' – began to lose currency, mad ... emerged as the common word covering the entire spectrum of the primal passions from hate to love. I'm mad at you. I'm mad about you. You've driven me mad."

What does Freud's fascination with Janus words suggest about the way our minds work to solve problems?

Roger Martin of the University of Toronto had this to say a while back in a Harvard Business Review blog: "Because people generally see leadership as synonymous with decisiveness – recall Harry S. Truman's 'the buck stops here' – the notion of embracing opposing ideas can seem wishy-washy.... However, I side more with F. Scott Fitzgerald's view of intelligence:

"'The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.' "

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