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Sanction is an unusual ambiguous word to me. In some cases it means to approve some action, while in other cases it means to prohibit or punish some action; and there being near opposite meanings, context is especially essential for correct interpretation.

What is interesting to me is: historically, how did sanction come to capture two opposite meanings like this? The etymology seems to trace back to the single Latin word sanctio, meaning a decree. But did sanctio have strong opposing meanings or connotations like our modern word sanction? Or how and when did the divergence occur over time?

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Looking at the noun sanction, it seems that both the positive and negative meanings refer to the support/discouragement, not the act of denying/allowing itself. You give sanction to encourage something; you apply sanctions to discourage it. In both cases it means "pressure brought to bear". Another interesting point, probably nothing to do with it: "sanctify" (same root) means "to set apart", which could have both positive and negative meanings. –  JeffSahol Nov 18 '11 at 20:57
Interesting fact: The French verb sanctionner has the same dual meanings that the English one has. –  dangph Dec 25 '12 at 9:52

5 Answers 5

What's happened is that the verb to sanction has retained the original sense relating to endorsement/recognition by official decree.

But the noun sanctions (invariably pluralised, frequently imposed or applied) has come to mean measures taken by authority (often, multiple cooperating authorities) to discourage unsanctioned activities. By default, it's usually governments restricting trade in certain goods and services with some other nation, in order to put pressure on its government.

There is also the "positive" singular noun give (ones) sanction, but as that link shows, it's rapidly declined as the "negative" plural noun impose sanctions has gained currency.

Although superficially this looks odd, in practice there's unlikely to be any confusion because the verb / plural noun distinction is almost always made.

Having said all that, usage does change. Increasing numbers of younger speakers rarely hear the verb or singular noun form with positive associations, and they effectively "back-form" a new verb form they want to mean to impose sanctions. @Jay has identified a few such usages already in "print", and much as they make me cringe, doubtless there will be more in future.

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I agree, it's a very curious word.

I just checked http://www.thefreedictionary.com/sanction to see if it offered any clarification, and the answer seems to be "not much".

Note their definition #2 for the verb form, "To encourage or tolerate by indicating approval." Then right below it is definition #3, "To penalize, especially for violating a moral principle or international law."

In practice, to tell which it means you have to read the context. "The government officially sanctions the use of solar power and offers numerous special tax breaks to encourage it." Versus, "The government has officially sanctioned the use of incandescent light bulbs, and they will no longer be permitted to be sold after 2012." [After some research, I do not stand by that last example.]

There are several words in English that are their own antonym. I find them rather amusing, myself.


In reply to FumbleFingers: I'm not sure what you would define as an "authoritative source", but here are a few examples of use of the word "sanctioned" that I've managed to find in a quick search:

A press release from the U.S. State Department: "Seven Companies Sanctioned Under the Amended Iran Sanctions Act". These companies were penalized.

Headline from the UK Guardian (newspaper): "Air pollution in Britain: state-sanctioned mass poisoning". The state approved the "mass poisoning".

Jerusalem Post: "Normal China-Iran business ties shouldn't be sanctioned" Read the article and it's clear that they mean that such business ties shouldn't be penalized.

Daily Gazette (Schenectady, NY): "Union sorority sanctioned over drinking at Oct. 7 party". Meaning they were penalized.

Washington Post: "Secret U.S. memo sanctioned killing of Aulaqi". U.S. approved it.

Catholic Charities web site: "Only approved sanctioned events are posted on our listing." (describing youth athletic activies) The organization approves these events.

Human Rights First web site: "Yemeni Government Contracted With U.N. Sanctioned Arms Dealer". The article indicates that the UN criticized the arms dealer in question.

Huffington Post: "The Pakistani government 'sanctioned' the killing of a journalist last month, the top U.S. military official said Thursday ..." They're saying the government approved the killing.

news.yahoo.com: "How widespread is teacher-sanctioned cheating?" Meaning teachers approving of cheating.

(I don't think that all of the above sources are "authoritative" in the sense that I believe their content to be accurate and unbiased, but they are all people whom one would reasonably expect to be competent writers.)

After going through dozens and dozens of examples, I come down to observing this pattern: If you say that a person or an organization was sanctioned, that means that they were penalized or some disapproval of them was expressed. If you say that an action or event was sanctioned, that means it was approved.

I thought that I had read examples in the past where it said that an action was sanctioned meaning that it was prohibited, but I am not able to find a quote like that from a grammatically-reputable source now, so I withdraw that portion of my answer above.

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I've deleted my comment since that particularly incorrect example is gone. The few instances you've now found effectively use "sanctioned" as short for "imposed sanctions". Probably many of the writers wouldn't even know that "approved" sense of the verb "sanction". Theirs is a very new (and sloppy, IMHO) "tabloid headline" usage that's unlikely to become established any time soon. –  FumbleFingers Nov 19 '11 at 0:08

In the literal sense, a sanction is a "decree."

In the non-literal sense, it means something the authorities feel very strongly about, either positively or negatively.

"The U.S. government sanctions solar energy." (good) "The U.S. government has sanctions against Iran." (bad)

The context will tell you which kind of sanction is meant. One thing is clear: The government is not "neutral" about the matter in question.

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It seems to me that to sanction something is to give it legitimacy. It has been perverted by politicians who have used it as shorthand for legitimising an otherwise illegitimate action. For example, when you have a trade agreement and you don't like something your partner is doing you 'legitimise' the (otherwise illegitimate) act of breaking the agreement as a device to force them to comply with your wishes. So you 'sanction' the breaking of the agreement. Hence you apply a 'sanction' against them. An excellent case of doublespeak.

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This isn't directly answering the question. The question asked where the two meanings came from and why they exist; your answer focuses more on the definitions of the word. –  MrHen Oct 25 '13 at 16:02

A sanction is only negative when it is against something — so sanction does not have two opposite meanings, it's just that sanctions against is the more usual term.

Sanction can be a verb or a noun.

When it is a verb, e.g.

I sanction this action

then sanction is positive, giving approval of an action. This is the same as the verb form of decree — when you decree something you are affirming its truthfulness or putting in place some rule or law, which is a positive action.

When sanction is used as a noun, it requires a direction, for or against, and this gives it its negative or positive connotation.


Sanctions were taken against [rogue state] by the UN today.


Sanctions were put in place to allow for trade between Taiwan and the US.

In the noun sense, then, it harks back to its origin decree, which similarly is a neutral noun.

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Hmm, I don't see how you say that "I sanction this action" is neither positive nor negative. When used this way, "sanction" indicates approval. I suppose if the thing being sanctioned is bad, like, "The government sanctioned discrimination against minorities", you could say that the phrase is negative, but you could say that about any word indicating approval or support. "Sanction" normally is positive in the sense of meaning approval or authorization. –  Jay Nov 18 '11 at 20:33
@Jay — yes, I see that, now you mention it. I was already onto my next thought when writing. Edited –  Matt E. Эллен Nov 18 '11 at 20:35
Did you get that Sanctions were put in place to allow for trade... from a credible source? Leafing through several dozen entries for sanctions were in NGrams, I didn't find a single one where they were "positive". Nor would I have expected to. –  FumbleFingers Nov 18 '11 at 20:45
@Matt Эллен: Following your link to the NGram for "sanctions allow", and looking at a few dozen, all I see is usages where imposing sanctions allows authorities to apply pressure by deprivation. I'm not going through all 625 results, but I doubt any of them use sanction in the sense of allow, permit, endorse. –  FumbleFingers Nov 18 '11 at 23:48
@Matt Эллен: Dictionaries don't tell the whole story. As this NGram shows, give my sanction has all but vanished over the last century, matching the rise of the plural noun form negatively imposed. Your example usage of sanctions that allow trade remains incorrect. –  FumbleFingers Nov 18 '11 at 23:55

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