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.

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