By Ruth Walker / October 24, 2012
Janus words in the language of dreams
Words with mutually contradictory meanings indicate how our minds cope with complexity.
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.”
Walking back, to avoid climbing down
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”?