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Ever seen a double-faced word?

Imagine there existed a word that had two definitions, and these two definitions were the opposite of each other. Hot could mean either hot or cold. A tall person could be either a giant or a midget. Sounds like something out of Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland. Yet such words exist in the English language. They are called Janus words, and the employs these vocabulary words frequently.

Perhaps the most common Janus word on the GRE is sanction. Sanction can mean to allow/encourage or to penalize/punish. Confusing? Let’s take a look:

The committee sanctioned the CEO’s actions.

As it stands, we cannot be sure how sanction is being used here. Is the committee happy or upset with the CEO’s actions? The good news is the GRE will mostly avoid this ambiguity.

The committee sanctioned the CEO’s actions, suspending him for two weeks.

The GRE is not going to make it that straightforward and may even retain some of the ambiguity as in the sentence-completion below.

Celebrities inhabit a rarefied realm, whereby we — actions that would otherwise be considered —- were our cohorts to behave the same way.

(A) dismiss…noble

(B) entreat…ignominious

(C) sanction…despicable

(D) condemn…unethical

(E) condone…tantalizing

Because answer choices (A), (B), (D), and (E) do not work, we know that answer choice (C) has to be using sanction to mean approve. More specifically, the first blank has to be a synonym for approve and the second blank has to be a negative word.

Look for more Janus words coming soon!

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4 Responses to Ever seen a double-faced word?

  1. sonali August 18, 2016 at 10:50 am #

    can you please explain the above question

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert August 20, 2016 at 3:53 pm #

      Gladly. Tell me a little bit more about your doubts regarding this Janus word question though. I want to make sure I answer you completely. 🙂

  2. David Zeglen June 10, 2013 at 12:53 pm #


    I think ‘moot’ is also a word that has a double meaning. According to the standard dictionary version, ‘moot’ means debatable or contestable. However, in colloquial usage, the word usually means the opposite. If we encounter this word on the GRE, do we assume the standard dictionary version? Or I suppose it all matters based on the context of the question.


    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele June 11, 2013 at 1:00 pm #

      Hi David,

      ‘Moot’ is definitely a tricky one! It can mean something that is debatable, or it can mean something that is irrelevant. In the latter instance, the point may still be debatable, but there isn’t much point in debating it.

      In the GRE sense, it will be clear from context which ‘moot’ they are employing. They will never write a question that can have two possible answers depending on how ‘moot’ is being used.

      Hope that point is not moot (first def.) 🙂

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