So Good It’s Bad: “Janus” Words That Flip to Opposite Definitions

Friday, December 92 min read

What comes to mind when you hear the word “egregious”? Likely something outrageous or flagrant, and, overwhelmingly, bad. In 2019, Michael Douglas used the word to describe the notorious college admissions scandal among the wealthy elite, which included many Hollywood figures. More recently, in 2022, NBA star Kevin Durant called sports journalist Stephen A. Smith’s comments on his legacy “egregious.”

Presently, “egregious” is used to mean “outstandingly bad; shocking” but includes a second, archaic definition: “remarkably good.” Meaning that at one point, English speakers used the word as a positive attribute. So how did this extreme adjective flip?

“Bizarro” vs. Janus Words

In a column about the etymology of “egregious,”  editor Merrill Perlman makes a distinction between so-called “bizarro words” and “Janus words,” deeming “egregious” a Janus word. Both types of words indicate that the word in question has two totally opposite definitions, but the distinction is in the usage.

A bizarro word is one that is used intentionally as the opposite of its traditional meaning, the way someone might describe something as “bad” when they really mean it’s “good” (for example, the slang word “dope,” which can mean “foolish” or “admirable”). Using it in the opposite context is actually referencing its original meaning. A Janus word, however, is one word that has two different meanings, depending on the context and without intentional regard to original meaning — for example, to “trim a tree” means to add decorations and ornaments, whereas to trim anything else means to remove or take something off. The Roman god Janus is usually represented as a two-faced figure, which led to the eponymous linguistic term.

Perlman claims that “egregious” could be good or bad, depending on the context — it’s just that examples of “egregious” in a positive context are exceedingly rare. If ever, it’s usually used to describe strangeness or even suspicion toward an otherwise positive attribute: “So-and-so was egregiously kind,” for example, might lead you to think that the person in question was acting unusually friendly.

Rising Above the Flock

As of 1530, the word in question meant “distinguished, eminent, excellent,” from the Latin egregius, coming from the phrase ex grege, or “rising above the flock,” which combined the roots ex- (“out of”) and grex (“a herd, flock”). That it literally meant “distinguished among the herd” implies a certain individuality — a person who goes above and beyond what is expected or standard.

Many etymologists suppose this shift in meaning came about in the late 16th century due to sarcastic or ironic usage. Justin Cord Hayes writes in The Unexpected Evolution of Language, “Over time, many, many people of the sixteenth century began to use the word ‘egregious’ the same way people today might say, ‘Great job,’ and really mean, ‘Rotten job.’” Eventually, the negatively tinged, ironic usage won out and the word was no longer a compliment.

Doubling Down on Double Meanings

The English language is not short on Janus words. One can “cleave” a block of wood, meaning to split it, or one can “cleave” to their principles, which means to hold on to them tightly. One might “sanction” something to communicate formal approval, or one can apply “sanctions” as a punishment. And of course, there’s “oversight,” which could indicate close watching, as with congressional committees, or could mean a total absence of close watching, such as forgetting to do something.

Featured image credit: izusek/ iStock

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