Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
In ancient Roman mythology, the god Ianus (Janus in English) was usually depicted with two faces looking in opposite directions — looking, as it were, both forward and backward, both literally and figuratively. Ianus was associated with beginnings, endings, and transitions, including birth and death and war and peace.
There are also more mundane transitions for him to preside over, for instance, when someone outside comes inside. Ianus was also the god of entrances and exits, and his name was the source of the Latin ianua “doorway, gate.”
In Latin, -tor is what’s called an agent suffix, which is added to a noun stem to indicate a person. It’s the same suffix you find in, for example, editor and gladiator. Add this to ianua, and you get the Latin word for a doorman or porter: ianitor.
Does that word look familiar? By the 17th century, English had borrowed the word as janitor, meaning a doorman or gatekeeper. (In old liturgical texts, you can occasionally find St. Peter referred to as “The Janitor of Heaven,” not because he disinfected the divine lavatory, but because he guarded Heaven’s gates.)
As the janitor’s duties expanded — probably especially in relation to schools, where they would be responsible for the keys and, to a degree, the safety of students — so did the definition of janitor. The first known reference in print to a janitor responsible for the cleanliness of a building appeared in 1708.
Janitor isn’t the only common word that harks back to the god Ianus. Another important transition is the shift from one year to the next, when we remember the past year while making plans for the months ahead — looking both forward and back. The first month of the year in the Roman calendar was named Ianuarius, after Ianus. And this is, of course, where we get our word January.
I bet you didn’t know janitor and January are etymological cousins.
Featured image: Amy Johansson / Shutterstock
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