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
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    Interesting fact: The French verb sanctionner has the same dual meanings that the English one has. – dangph Dec 25 '12 at 9:52
  • It reminds me of the word fatwa, which means an ecclesiastical or clerical decree. Those decrees are sometimes used to issue punishments, threats etc. But it also can be used to clarify doctrine, approve things etc. If that is the same root meaning, then sanction makes sense to me. – user129440 Nov 1 '15 at 3:32

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.

  • Are you sure about this? This source claims that the negative verb form appeared in 1956, but doesn't give a citation. Every online dictionary I've checked gives the negative verb form, but I can't tell whether or not they pre-date your answer in 2011. – JBentley Jun 13 '16 at 15:28
  • @JBentley: Am I sure about what? I can tell you the full OED says of the new "seemingly contradictory" sense (their definition 4: To impose sanctions upon (a person), to penalize, first citation 1956) that this is A use of doubtful acceptability at present. On the noun front, a sanctions was originally just a "law" - it first mutated to penalty for transgressing a law, then to include reward for observing a law, but the (usually plural) *political/trade blockade" sense didn't appear until 1919 (by G B Shaw, who put it in scare quotes because he knew it was somewhat neologistic). – FumbleFingers Jun 13 '16 at 15:50

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

Emergence of the punitive sense of 'sanction' in dictionary definitions

Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language (1756) has this entry for sanction:

SANCTION. s. {sanction, French ; sanctio, Latin.} 1. The act of confirmation which gives to any thing its obligatory power ; ratification. 2. A law ; a decree ratified.

The first of these definitions expresses the "approval" notion that remains one important meaning of sanction. The second is clearly ancestral to sanction in the sense of "punitive law," but here it seems to apply with equal readiness to laws that are positive, negative, or neutral toward people or nations they address. I note, too, that Johnson defines sanction exclusively as a noun; there is no entry for the word as a verb.

Noah Webster, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language (1806) assigns much the same meanings to the word, although even more briefly:

Sanction, n. a ratification, confirmation, decree

Sanction, v. t. to ratify, confirm, support

Interestingly, the first big Webster's Dictionary, An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) condemns the "law or decree" sense of sanction altogether:

SANCTION, n. {Fr[ench] from L[atin] sanctio, from sanctus, holy, solemn established.} 1. Ratification ; an official act of a superior by which he ratifies and gives validity to the act of some other person or body. A treaty is not valid without the sanction of the president and senate. 2. Authority ; confirmation derived from testimony, character, influence or custom. [Example omitted.] 3. A law or decree. {Improper.}

SANCTION, v. t. To ratify ; to confirm ; to give validity or authority to.

Webster doesn't explain why the meaning he that had included in his dictionary 22 years earlier—and that Johnson had included in his dictionary 50 years before that—was "Improper"—but presumably it had to do with the fact that a "law or decree" might not entail ratification as Webster understood the term, and so it was a loose usage.

The 1828 definitions remained unchanged in the revised editions of Webster's dictionary for 1840 and 1847, but a major change occurred in the American Dictionary of the English Language of 1864:

Sanction, n. (Lat[in] sanctio, from sancire, sanctum, to render sacred or inviolable, to fix unalterably ; Fr[ench] sanction, Sp[anish] sancion, It[alian] sanzione} 1. Solemn or ceremonious ratification ; an official act of a superior by which he ratifies and gives validity to the act of some other person or body ; establishment of any thing as valid, or giving authority to it ; confirmation ; approbation and acceptance ; support. [Example omitted.] 2. Any thing done or said to enforce the will, law, or authority of another ; as legal sanctions.

In effect, after 36 years of disgrace as an "improper" meaning, the "law or decree" definition of sanction reemerged (with Merriam-Webster's approval) as a new "thing done to enforce the will, law, or authority" definition. The phrase used to illustrate the new meaning is striking because it's the one we use today in connection with the punitive sense of sanction: "legal sanctions."

Early instances of 'legal sanction[s]' and 'sanction[s] against'

The phrase "legal sanctions" has been in use for centuries, as a Google Books search for "legal sanction" and "legal sanctions" confirms. The earliest match for either term that a search turns up is from Jeremy Taylor, Ductor Dubitantium: Or, The Rule of Conscience in All Her General Measures, second edition (1671):

This also appears in that we find the original of the Quadragesimal or Lent-fast attributed to other causes and beginnings then the tradition or Canon Apostolical. Cassian says, that as long as the perfection of the Primitive Church did remain, there was no observation of a Lent fast ; for they who spent the whole year in abstinence were not tied with the necessity of a precept or legal sanction.

And the next is from Peter Walsh, The History & Vindication of the Loyal Formulary or Irish Remonstrance (1723):

For certainly nothing can be more obvious to reason, than that since our own, either formal or virtual, express or tacit owning of so many uncatholick Positions, and so many unchristian practices (by our own continual refusing to disown them, or either of them, in any sufficient manner, or as we ought by any proper Test) hath been of our side hitherto the only immediate cause of all our woes, and especially of all those legal Sanctions, which upon due reflection do without doubt render our best condition even at present anxious : ...

Both of these instances, it seems to me, may be taken to involve sanctions in the sense of decrees or rulings or authorizations. But the phrase "sanction [or sanctions] against" (which produces even earlier matches in a Google Books search) carries a necessarily negative sense that easily accommodates a notion of punitive action. From a 1638 translation of Gerard Langraine, A Review of the Councill of Trent:

Wee may take notice by the way, of the prohibition made by the Councell, and the Pragmatique sanction against the Popes, that they should not take any thing for the mantle or Pall, which they were wont to sell to Archbishops and Metropolitans, at a good round price ; ...

And from William Sanderson, A Compleat History of the Lives and Reigns of Mary Queen of Scotland, and Her Son and Successor, James the Sixth, King of Scotland (1656):

In the Kings return out of Scotland, the people took occasion to complain in common, and to petition in particular, That the freedom of Servants and Laborers, was extremely enslaved by their Masters pretended zeal and sanction against Idolizing (as was pretended) of such days as ancient custome from General Councils, and the Church of England reformed, even to that time, had appointed to be kept Holy.

It thus appears that sanction in the sense of formal approval and sanction in the sense of hostile decree have coexisted in English for more than 300 years.


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.

  • Well, lets do away with all nouns then, as context will tell us what is meant. – user126158 Oct 19 '15 at 21:50

I extract from this helpful answer on Quora, as follows:

I think Dictionary, Encyclopedia and Thesaurus - The Free Dictionary also has a useful description here listed below the actual definitions:

sanc′tion·a·ble adj.
Word History: Occasionally, a word can have contradictory meanings. Such a case is represented by sanction, which can mean both "to allow, encourage" and "to punish so as to deter." It is a borrowing from the Latin word sānctiō, meaning "a law or decree that is sacred or inviolable." In English, the word is first recorded in the mid-1500s in the meaning "law, decree," but not long after, in about 1635, it refers to "the penalty enacted to cause one to obey a law or decree." Thus from the beginning two fundamental notions of law were wrapped up in it: law as something that permits or approves and law that forbids by punishing. From the noun, a verb sanction was created in the 18th century meaning "to allow by law," but it wasn't until the second half of the 20th century that it began to mean "to punish (for breaking a law)." English has a few other words that can refer to opposites, such as the verbs dust (meaning both "to remove dust from" and "to put dust on") and trim (meaning both "to cut something away" and "to add something as an ornament").

[...] What happens is that new contexts appear, and if it's not clear cut that the idea is brand new, there will be a tendency to recycle an existing word. This increases ambiguity, but when the alternative is using a word that is literally meaningless to everyone else, this is seen as preferable. (Note this is much more common with verbs than nouns, as people typically expect new concrete objects to have a new name associated with them, and so common verbs have more word senses than common nouns.)

How do people pick the word they recycle? Well, they want something that conveys as much of the new meaning as possible with the hope that that, plus the new context, will be enough that it makes sense to people.

In this case, the word "sanction" already had a meaning that was associated with ideas like rule, law, and authority. So if you simply use a supporting word that implies forcing rule/law/authority on another body, people can understand what it means. Hence the common phrase "impose a sanction". Even without a new official sense of the word "sanction", you get the gist of what is being done. Over time this gets used more, and since more classic uses of the word are becoming less common, people don't see anything that contradictory about using a verb "to sanction" to mean "to impose a sanction", and boom, you've got a Janus word.

Of course with all this, one could easily ask why - in 1956 apparently - use the word "sanction" at all when there are other words ("penalize") that mean something similar without the contradictory baggage. I don't have the official answer there, but I wonder if the contradictory aspect actually served a purpose in a sense of doublespeak (as in Orwell's 1984). [...]


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.

  • 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
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    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
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    @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
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    @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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