Posted by: cochinblogger | July 15, 2010

Janus Words and Serial Killers

A person I once worked with had a strong antipathy to the church. Her prejudice was clear from stray remarks she made about priests and the church. I later learned that she, a Christian, had fallen in love with and married a Hindu, and her family had opposed the marriage. The church would also have done its bit to try and persuade her not to go ahead with the marriage, and this probably explained her hostility toward priests and the church. This woman was vastly amused by the dual meanings of the word primate: both a bishop and an anthropoid ape could be referred to as a primate, a juxtaposition that she loved. She evidently regarded the word primate as a Janus word, a word that has dual, opposite meanings, even though she was not aware that such a category of words existed. Now, primate is not a true Janus word except in this woman’s imagination; here is a list of Janus words, which are also called autoantonyms: http://people.sc.fsu.edu/~burkardt/fun/wordplay/autoanto.html

By the way, I have a bone to pick with the third example on the above Web page. According to the author, the sentence “Few would argue that children are the chief beneficiaries” is ambiguous. Fiddlesticks! The sentence simply means that hardly anyone would deny that children are the chief beneficiaries. If it were “A few would argue …” the meaning is that literally a few people would argue …

A word I stumbled across recently, if it’s not a Janus word, has the Janus flavor. I refer to the word asperse. According to Webster’s, this word has two meanings:

1 : SPRINKLE; especially : to sprinkle with holy water
2 : to attack with evil reports or false or injurious charges

It would be interesting to know how these meanings came to be.

The other ruminative strand thinking about Janus words generated was the relationship between serial killers and religion. I was reminded of Albert Fish, probably the most perverted serial killer and cannibal that ever lived. He was also a quiet, kindly looking old man with children who said grace before every meal, and who justified his atrocities on children by citing this line from the New Testament: “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” He also said that if God had been offended by his killings, he would have sent an angel to stop him, just as he stopped Abraham from killing his son.

Another serial murderer in whose life religion played an important role was Gary Ridgway, the Green River murderer. Here is an excerpt from Great Unsolved Crimes: Getting Away With Murder by Rodney Castleden:

“Ridgway had fanatical religious beliefs and these, combined with his strong sex drive, generated the tensions within him that led to serial murder.”

Again, later:

“Why did he do it? It was partly the enormous stress generated by the polarization between his fanatical religious beliefs and his powerful sex drive.”

Janus words. Janus people. Let’s admit that there’s a little bit of Janus in all of us.

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