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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."

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."

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