nervy and homely

At a party yesterday I was told a story about an American psychometric test that was deemed unethical when it was imported to the UK. I've not been able to confirm the story, but the alleged problem was that people were asked whether they considered themselves "a nervy person", and that answer affected what 'type' the person was considered to be. Since the words mean opposite things in the two countries, the UK test classified people wrongly. In AmE, a nervy person has 'got a lot of nerve'. They're bold and fearless. In BrE a nervy person is 'a bundle of nerves'. They're nervous, anxious.

Words that are their own opposites are sometimes called Janus words (or contronyms or autoantonyms or lots of other things). A classic example is to temper, which can mean 'to harden' (e.g. metal) or 'to soften' (e.g. comments). Nervy isn't technically a Janus word, since its opposite meanings belong in different dialects, but if you're bidialectal, then it seems like one.

Another Janus-like cross-dialectal word is homely. In AmE means 'ugly' and is typically applied to people--i.e. having a face that really should not go out much. In BrE it means the same as AmE adjective homey--i.e. 'co{z/s}y, comfortable in a home-like way'. The first time someone told me my house was homely I assumed he was making a joke, as it seemed such a rotten thing to say.

A 2001 issue of The Maven's Word of the Day covers some more UK/US Januses, including the other one that was raised with me at this party: momentarily.


  1. Ha! Homely... that makes more sense now. I was traveling through New Zealand, where I stayed with some family friends. They wrote an email to my parents telling them I was very homely. I'm glad to find that it just means they liked my baking!!

  2. Hmm. I'm interested that you say temper means to harden a metal. I've always heard it used as to toughen a metal by removing some of the brittleness, more or less synonymous with annealing and so close in meaning to it's sense of taking the edge off one's comments.

  3. I'm not an expert on metals--but the point that's generally made about temper as a Janus word is that it means to strengthen metal (making it less brittle goes with that) but to weaken comments.

  4. I will use my BS in metallurgy to explain. You temper a metal to soften it but it's part of a longer and more complicated process of Quench and Temper. Quench makes the metal harder but more brittle and then temper gently heats it to soften it and toughen it.

  5. The trendiness of "transparent" in good government and journalistic circles has made this particular Janus more prominent (although not dialect dependent):

    Transparent: open, accessible, hiding nothing.

    Transparent: brazen, flauntingly deceptive, not even going through the hypocritical motions of attempting to hide duplicity.

  6. Re Andrew Tyndall's comment, I always used to be utterly baffled by an ex-boss's use of the word "transparent". He would say that all software needs to be completely transparent to the user. By which he meant that it should be developed to be so completely accessible to the user as to make it seem effortless to understand and operate, i.e., hide all complications from the user. He said the same thing more generally about businesses/products/services. Think Apple's iThings or "everything for $1" stores. To me, this is the exact opposite of what I think of as transparency. To me, transparency means seeing all the innards. Nothing to do with ease of use.

  7. I recall hearing of other "autonymns" such as cleave (to split apart, or Biblically, to cling to) and weather (to wear away, or to survive abuse)

  8. In 1959, the Blues scholar Paul Oliver wrote of Gertrude 'Ma' Rainey (pictured here in a publicity photo, not a candid snap):

    Ma Rainey has been termed ugly. Certainly she had an impish, Puck-like face, but she had endearing features. If she was 'homely' in the American sense she was also 'homely' in the English sense and her material build, her affectionate if perverse regard for young boys, was engaging to her hearers.

  9. her material build

    Sorry! That should, of course be:

    her maternal build

  10. wiki-walked here back from your current entry, thought I should let you know that the link to the Mavens' Word is broken, and after persistent googling, have discovered the only good link for it currently is here. :)

  11. Thanks for that. Duly updated!

  12. Huh... Never heard "nervy" before (I don't think). My first meaning guess was the BrE version (I'm American).

    I found this blog when looking for resources on English dialect differences. The more I read, the more often I realize that my (i)dialect is more of a mish-mash than I previously thought.

    My sister tends to point toward cross-cultural sharing, thanks to the Internet letting us talk/write to people from all over. Personally, I think the fact that my grandmother was from England is also a factor. (Grandma taught mom, mom taught me... Though dad also seems to stick to a lot of BrE stuff, oddly.)


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)