I was looking at the definitions of "nerve" given in Lexico nee ODO, and I got two definitions of it that are quite the opposite of each other:


  1. ...

  2. one's steadiness and courage in a demanding situation.
    "an amazing journey which tested her nerves to the full"

    • ...
  3. feelings of nervousness.
    "his first-night nerves soon disappeared"

  4. ...

This pair of definitions and their respective examples above completely oppose each other, methinks.

How does something like this happen? Unless I have misinterpreted these definitions, how can a word have two definitions that make opposing claims to each other?

Thanks :)

  • 2
    This may not be as rare as you think, these words are called Janus words, or contronyms. Others include peruse, sanction, and clip to name a few.
    – katatahito
    Commented Jul 2, 2019 at 9:30
  • 2
    What @katatahito said. Also, in my experience, nerve, singular, is typically used for steadiness/courage while nerves plural, is used for nervousness or annoyance.
    – Jim
    Commented Jul 2, 2019 at 9:34
  • Also, is your question "Explain the difference in usage" or "How did this come to happen (etymology)"?
    – katatahito
    Commented Jul 2, 2019 at 9:43
  • 1
    It's simple. Words do not have meanings. A word is just a collection of sounds. We then assign a meaning to it. Cat does not actually mean "cat". But we say that it does, and so now it does. Go does not actually mean "to move", and it does not mean "a Japanese board game". Gate does not actually mean "a door", it does not mean "a piece of electronics", and it does not mean "a scandal". But we say it does mean all of these things at once, and so it means all of these things at once. If tomorrow we decide that nerve means "you" and "what" and "get", then that's nerve nerve'll nerve.
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 14:35
  • 1
    @katatahito Personally, I think we should leave the term Janus words (and its even worse cousin, Janus-faced) far behind, but I may be biased. Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 16:05

2 Answers 2


It is a weird idiomatic quirk, but usually, it is the plural "nerves" which is used to describe fear. "Nerve" in the singular usually means "courage":

  • "He lost his nerves" - means his fear subsided.
  • "He lost his nerve" - means his courage gave way to fear.

Your dictionary quote about "testing nerves to the full" seems like an exception to this, but one explanation may be that it is using "fear" in a positive context, as in "facing your fears". It may also be a true plural of the word "nerve", so "testing your nerves" means it will test your many forms of courage.

Remember that dictionaries collect the singular and plural uses of a word together. Any idiomatic differences are brought out in the multiple definitions and you have to take note of the examples cited.

  • Although I would argue that the use of nerve for courage is using it as an uncountable noun, rather than singular. You'd say, "You've got a lot of nerve", but not, "He would've attacked the monster, but didn't have a nerve."
    – Zack
    Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 14:08

I think the answer here is not grammatical but rather of a semantic nature. And it Sounds perfectly reasonable. Our nerves are a double edged sword. They are what make us feel - pain or otherwise pleasure. So it only stands to reason that the word to describe such a thing would hold two "contradicting" ideas. Even today, science still can't really explain pain and pleasure, so a word made up before neural science was even contemplated is sure not to explain it.

In Freddie's own words - Pain Is So Close To Pleasure - Queen.

There are more examples like nerves, Tears ,or crying can also be of Joy or of sadness, etc..

  • Listening to sad, depressing music gives me a sense of pleasure, sometimes ;)
    – Mr Pie
    Commented Jul 2, 2019 at 11:09
  • 1
    If this were true then it would be impossible to tell what a person meant by "lost my nerve" without added context, but native English speakers do know which it means.
    – Astralbee
    Commented Jul 2, 2019 at 13:01

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