Monday, March 12, 2012

To sanction or not to sanction

To sanction or not to sanction the non-sanctioned use of sanction


Howard Richler

Prosecutors had been seeking a five-year prison sentence but the decision effectively lifts the threat of any sanction against the 75-year old media tycoon{Silvio Berlusconi}.

National Post-Feb 25, 2012

{The company Lavalin} did and would not sanction an attempt at an extraction mission or any other action that would contravene local or international laws or regulations,” Ms. Quinton said in an email. National Post- Feb11, 2

In the first quote the word sanction is used to mean a penalty but two weeks earlier the word means authorize. How can the National Post copy editors sanction such confusion? I mean is sanction good or bad?

The easy answer is that sanction when used as verb usually means “permit” but when used as a noun it invariably means a “penalty.” Complicating matters even further, dictionaries are at odds on this issue. For example, Merriam Webster, Cambridge , and Encarta only recognize an approving sense for the verb whereas, the OED, Canadian Oxford, and American Heritage allow that it can denote a punitive sense. Since using the word in this manner might be misunderstood, it might be wise to say “issue sanctions against” to eliminate the possiblity of non-comprehension.

The OED explains how the dichotomy in meanings occured. “Sanction” first surfaces in English as a noun in the 1570s and the OED relates that the word derives from the Latin sanctio, “decree” where it referred to the “action of ordaining as inviolable under a penalty.” Thus sanctions most often refer to measures taken by authorities to discourage courses of actions that are not approved of by muckety-mucks. Perhaps because it is more efficacious to dissuade with a stick than to persuade with a carrot, the punitive sense of the noun took hold. Interestingly,when used in the singular, as in “UN sanction or “Church sanction” often the word is used to mean approbation.

We first see the verb sense of sanction in the 1770s and consistently it has been used in the original sense of endorsement or recognition by an authoritative decree. This is the intended meaning in Edmund Burke's 1791 An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs : “Tests against old principles, sanctioned by the law.” The “penalize” sense of the verb sanction seems to have arisen in the middle of the 20th century, and although this usage is not inherently illogical, I would advise against employing it unless the context makes your intention perfectly clear. Hence in 2010 when Sarah Palin told right-wing political commentator Glenn Beck “We're not having a lot of faith that the White House is going to come out with a strong enough policy to sanction what it is that North Korea is going to do,” we assume because of her politics that she didn't have the approval sense of the verb sanction in mind. (However, I stand to be refudiated, on this point.)

Notwithstanding the above, in the last five years I've noticed an increasing use of the verb sanction to mean “penalize.” This is no doubt caused because the punitive sense of sanction to refer to actions taken by a nation or an alliance of nations against another as a coercive measure to enforce a violated law or treaty is the most common usage. In the process of back-formation this sense gets extended to the verbal sphere. Though this use of the noun only developed in the 20th century, I predict this usage will eventually represent the dominant verbal sense and one day sanction the noun and sanction the verb will live in harmony.

Howard Richler's next book From Gay (Happy) to Gay (Homosexual) and other mysteriuos semantic shifts will be published by Ronsdale Press in 2013.
This article appeared recently in the legal magazine Lexpert:

Millennial Mantra

In the 1950s, everything was “neat.” Nowadays, overstimulated teens capture the zeitgeist with their own mot juste
"OH MY GOD! I gotta tell you what happened at Jason's party last night. It was, like, so incredibly random.”
The utterer of the above words (overheard recently at a Starbucks) was, perhaps not surprisingly, a text-maniacal teenager. If, however, you happen to be a polite and mature person who refrains from eavesdropping on adolescent conversations the way I do, I should explain the meaning of the italicized word. For adherents of old school thinking, the word “random” brings to mind its traditional dictionary definition, which describes something “without a pattern.” However, for people under 30, its most common sense is “out of the norm.”
Whether the skinny, peppermint-mocha-drinking young lady felt that what happened at Jason's party was “exciting,” “weird,” “lame,” or “gross,” I didn't have a clue, nor did I have the temerity to ask for clarification. Complicating matters, some people use the word to mean “inconsistent” or “inconsequential.”
“Random” also does double duty as a noun (as in, “He's such a random"). Paul McFedries's website states that, when employed as a noun, the word denotes that the person in question is outside the hacker community. He gives this as an example: “I bailed out of that Net seminar because it was just a bunch of randoms asking bogus questions.” Judging, however, from other usages I've spotted of “random” as a noun (as in, “I'm just going for coffee with some randoms") it's also often used to refer to an indistinct group.
Not only is the new sense of random being used ubiquitously by English speakers from Canada to New Zealand, but I have spotted it making inroads in other languages, such as Italian, Spanish, Québécois, French and German in much the way that “cool” and “okay” have become international buzzwords.
Not everyone is on board with the word's recent evolution. The new usage has spawned much disdain, particularly on Facebook. For example, there is a Facebook page called “I hate people who say (and misuse) the word random” with 304 members; another called “Society against the overuse of the word ‘random'” with 180 members; and yet another called “Campaign against inappropriate use of the word random,” which sports 301 members.
At this last site, readers are warned, “For several years we have witnessed the proliferation of ‘random’ propositions. It's time to call time on this irritating phenomenon. Inappropriate use of this word (which, incidentally means ‘made, done, happening or chosen without method or conscious decision’ - Source: Webster's Dictionary) only serves to furnish you with the appearance of being ignorant, inarticulate and unsophisticated. Do yourself, and your peers, a favour by banishing it from your tedious patter.”
Alas, this usage has even filtered into mainstream writing. A New York Magazine article two years ago was entitled “Six Random Michael Jackson Pop-Culture Moments.” And judging from the innumerable Internet usages I spotted, random can be synonymous with “cool,” “fun,” “exciting” and “distinct” but it can just as easily mean “silly,” “inconsequential,” “distasteful,” “strange” or “impossible.” The word appears to mean everything and nothing, although a closer look does show signs of sense behind the nonsense.
Back in 2003, Ken Ringle declared in the Washington Post that the Age of Aquarius had been supplanted by the Age of Random. Ringle surmised that the youth of the third millennium have been “so overwhelmed by the randomness of the stimuli assaulting them that they selected ‘random’ as their adjective of choice,” and added that he viewed “random” as the flip side of the 1950s favourite adjective, “neat.”
According to lexicographer Ben Zimmer the “random” age began in the late ‘60s. Zimmer spotted the following definition of “random” from the MIT student paper, The Tech, in 1971. As an adjective: “peculiar, strange, unpredictable, or inexplicable.” As a noun: “a person who happens to be in a particular place at a particular time ... a person who is not a member of a particular group, an outsider.”
I suppose it is a testament to the importance of geek culture that the term eventually spread into mainstream culture to become one of the mantras of the new age. Even the Oxford English Dictionary, the greatest tome of our language, has leant credence to the mutation, showing definitions of “random” that reflect its new meanings.
Like, how random is that?
Howard Richler's latest book is Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words. He can be reached at

Saturday, March 10, 2012

(This article appeared in the March 2012 edition of The Senior Times)
The etymological ingredients of food aren't always appetitizing


Howard Richler

In his book Crazy English wordsmith Richard Lederer makes us question the ingredients of many of our foods. After all, there's no egg in eggplant, no peas or nuts in peanuts, and blackberries are green and then red before they are ripe. How can we trust the fruits we eat when a grapefruit has nothing to do with grape and a pineapple doesn't seem to be related to a pine tree or an apple? Are strawberries named for straw? What about raspberries?
In the case of “strawberry,” etymologists are divided on the meaning of “straw.” Whereas some believe it derives from an obsolete sense of the word,“small piece of chaff,” referring to the external seeds, others think it derives from the fact that the plant’s runners resemble straws. “Raspberry” derives from obsolete English word for the fruit “raspis.”

The designations “grapefruit” and “pineapple” highlight the fact that often words are named for seemingly peculiar perceptions. The only resemblance between a grapefruit and a grape is that both are grown in clusters but this was enough for it to be called “grapefruit.” An apple must have been deemed to be the generic fruit for a long time because by the 13th century, the term “pineapple” was applied in English to “a pine cone.” The word was applied to the fruit in the mid 17th century, because of its similarity in shape to a pine cone.

Another fruit that named for its perceived appearance was the “coconut.” When 15th century Portuguese explorers discovered this delicacy in the Indian Ocean islands they fancied that the three little indentations at the base of the large nut looked like eyes. Thinking that these three “eyes” gave the nut the appearance of a grinning face, the named it the “coconut,” coca being the Portuguese word for a grimacing face.

These fruits, however, have tepid etymologies compared to the avocado, which ultimately derives from Nahuatl language of South America where it was given the name ahuacatl, “testicle” because of the similarity in shape. The Spanish conquistadors absorbed this word originally as aguacate but before long the word morphed into avocado, the Spanish word for “advocate.”

In the name of etymological propriety, one might be particularly resistant to eating vanilla ice cream. In Elizabethan England, “vanilla” was thought to have aphrodisiac properties stemming from the fact that the sheath-like shape of the pod of the plant bore a resemblance to the vagina. Nor were the English alone in this gynecological perception as the word “vanilla” comes from the Spanish for “little vagina.” Similarly, you might not want to know that vermicelli is a form of the Italian word form worm, verme. It is so named because when heated it expands and exudes what resembles small worms.

Also not particularly appetizing is the etymology of pumpernickel bread. This coarse bread is the progeny of the unholy union of the New High German, pumpern, “to break wind” and nickel, “goblin” or “devil.” It was claimed that if you ate pumpernickel you’d fart like the devil. The aubergine, on the other hand, enjoys an anti-flatulent heritage. It began its life as the Sanskrit vatinganah that referred to the lack of gas it produces. Sanskrit vatinganah, and went through a transconinental migration eventually to become the Catalan alberginia, and finally French aubergine.

Occasionally, this process can also work in reverse; a non-food word can derive from a food. If sausage represents one of your favourite foods, it behooves me to relate that your bowels are etymologically “little sausages.” The word comes from the Latin botellus, which meant “intestine” or “little sausage.” It is said that the Romans used the same word for intestine as sausage because soldiers noticed a distinct resemblance of the slashed stomachs of their slain comrades to sausages.

Bon appetit.

Howard Richler's next book From Gay (Happy) to Gay (Homosexual) and other mysterious semantic shifts will be published by Ronsdale Press in 2013.