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 bemoan past regrets and celebrate successes), then moves forward with hopes for the year ahead!
So, in January, we’re all a little bit like Janus, the Roman deity for whom the month is named. He is the god of doorways, beginnings, and the rising and setting of the sun. In fact, the Latin jānus means “doorway, archway, arcade.”
There were many such 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 heads that face in opposite directions, looking to both the future and the past.
But, what does that have to do with the name January …
What does Janus-faced mean?
First, we have to start with Janus-faced, weird we know.
This ancient deity 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’s a Janus word?
The two faces of Janus are also evident in the term Janus word, which refers to “a word that has opposite or nearly opposite meanings, such as cleave and dust.” To cleave something can mean to adhere closely to that thing, but it can also mean 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.”)
So you see, 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.
If you’re feeling pulled in two different directions at this time of transition, take comfort in the fact that, at least from a linguistic perspective, it’s to be expected!