• janitor •
jæ-ni-têr • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. A door-keeper, porter, ostiary. 2. A caretaker or custodian of a building.
Notes: We think today's word is still a good one despite the fact that it has fallen into the disrepute of political incorrectness. Those of us sensitive to the political whims in language in the US today refer to janitors as custodians. Janitor has an adjective, janitorial, and the position of a janitor is a janitorship. We think this word should never have been carted off to the PC cellar.
In Play: When we replace names that we think have become unrespectable, however, the general result is that the replacement soon acquires the connotation of disrespect. It would be difficult to find a designation for custodians with a more sterling pedigree than janitor, though: not only is it based on the name of a Roman god, beginning in the 17th century Saint Peter himself was sometimes called "the Janitor of Heaven".
Word History: Janitor comes to us directly from Latin ianitor "doorkeeper" based on the word ianus (janus) "archway, gate". The god of doorways and the New Year in ancient Rome was also called Ianus (Janus). Because he was the god of beginnings and endings, he was represented over Roman doorways with two faces looking in opposite directions. The only remains of this association is in Portuguese, where janela means "window". The month of January was also named after him. The name is based on the Proto-Indo-European root ei- "to go", found today in Russian idu "I am going". Latin ire "to go" and iter "journey", visible today in the English borrowings iterate, itinerary, and itinerant, are descendants of the same PIE root.