Where Does The Name “January” Come From?

If you were asked to pick which month is most often associated with deep reflection, you’d probably choose January. Known for recaps and resolutions, the new year starts with retrospection, as we celebrate successes and yes, bemoan, some past regrets. Then, it moves forward with hopes for the year ahead!

So, in January, we’re all a little bit like its namesake: Janus, the Roman deity the month is named after.

Who was Janus?

In ancient Roman culture, Janus was a god of doorways, beginnings, and the rising and setting of the sun. His name comes from the Latin janus, meaning doorway, archway, arcade.” Fun fact: the related Latin word janua, meaning “door, doorway, entrance,” ultimately gives us the word janitor, which originally referred to a door attendant or porter before evolving to its more familiar sense of “custodian.”

There were many gateways in Rome where ceremonial entrances and exits were made, especially for the departure of the army on an expedition. As the god of transitions, Janus is often depicted with two, bearded heads that face in opposite directions, looking to both the future and the past.

After 153 b.c., January (mensis Januarius in Latin) became the first month of the Roman calendar (which we adopted), the figure of Janus a perfect symbol for new beginnings.

What does Janus-faced mean?

This ancient deity Janus has found his way into modern English in more ways than one. And as you might expect, his other lexical contributions are not entirely straightforward.

The versatile word Janus-faced can refer to someone or something’s capricious or seemingly contradictory nature. Or, it can be used with a more negative undertone to describe someone as deceitful and, well, two-faced.

What is a Janus word?

The two faces of Janus are also evident in the term Janus word, “a word that has opposite or nearly opposite meanings,” such as cleave and dust. (There are also called contranyms.)To cleave something can mean to adhere closely to that thing, but it can also mean its opposite: to split, divide, or cut off.  As a verb, dust can refer to the removal of dust, or the addition of it. (Think “dust the cookies with confectioners’ sugar.”) Can you think of others? 

Duality is embedded into all of Janus’s words, including the very language we use to talk about the beginning of the calendar year: January.

The Dictionary Is More Than The Word Of The Day

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