Wednesday, January 7, 2015


Unsanctioning Sanction


Howard Richler

In Crazy English, Richard Lederer points out the many anomalies of the English language such as greyhounds not necessarily being grey, and fireflies being beetles not flies. However, this book is probably best known for this quip: “In what other language do people drive in a parkway and park on a driveway?”

Some months ago here in my Lexpert column I dealt with the seemingly contradictory usage of the non-literal sense of “literally,”; this is but one example of many words that can have contradictory meanings. For example, “cleave” can mean adhere or separate; “dust,” add fine particles or remove them; “oversight,” monitor or fail to oversee; “ravel,” entangle or disentangle; and “with,” alongside or against.

Sometimes, we can explain how particular words evolved contradictory senses. With the word “fast” we start off with the sense of “immovable” or “firm, as in “standing fast.” From this meaning we developed the concept of “running fast,” and hence the “rapid” sense of the word. Similarly, “fine” originally denoted something “slender,” and this led to a sense of “highly finished,” which in turn led to a sense of “beautiful.” In situations where large growth is desirable,such as, a “fine head of hair,” the word “fine” can be seen as “large,” even though the word started its life as “slender.”

Words that possess contradictory meanings are sometimes called contronyms “Contronym” is now being researched for inclusion in the OED; it does, however, appear in Oxford Dictionaries Online its first citation being in 1962. An alternate designation for this type of word is Janus-faced; the term coming from the Roman god Janus whose name derives from the Latin ianua, “entrance gate.” Janus was the god of doorways and gateways and as they can be passed in and out, his face looked in opposite directions.

As mentioned in my “literally” article, the context in which the seemingly contradictory word is used should clarify the intended meaning. The word “sanction,” however, drives many to distraction due to its uncertain meaning. Complicating matters further, “sanction” does double duty as a noun and a verb where different rules apply. Its first usage was as a noun in the 16th century when it referred to a law or decree and in particular an ecclesiastical decree that if violated resulted in a penalty. In the late 18th century we see sanction used as a verb with the sense of to confirm or to permit in an authoritative manner.

According to linguist Ben Zimmer, the word has headed in opposite directions – “One relating to legal or ethical rules, and one relating to penalties against infringing such rules. Since the 18th century, the verb formed from 'sanction' has generally accorded with the positive sense as when Thomas Jefferson wrote in his autobiography of preserving 'the very words of the established law, wherever their meaning has been sanctioned by judicial decisions.' ”

As a noun, the dominant sense of “sanction” is economic or military action taken by a government or governments against another country; e.g.,“USA and Canada imposed sanctions on Russia.” Confusingly, however, it can mean the opposite, e.g.,“USA and Britain seek UN sanction against Iraq.” Interestingly, definition 2a in the OED states “Law: The specific penalty enacted in order to enforce obedience to a law”; however definition 2b states “Extended to include the provisions of reward for obedience.”

As I mention in my book How Happy Became Homosexual, the meaning of words is in constant flux and by the mid-20th century the “penalize” sense of the verb sanction arose and its use has recently started to become the dominant one. This probably developed because the usage of the “reward” sense of the noun became rarer. For example, in 2010 Bloomberg News reported that “{US congressman}Rangel would be the first lawmaker sanctioned by the full House since..” Just this past May a Los Angeles Times headline read “Donald Sterling Sanctioned” and a Business Insider one declared “Obama Just Sanctioned The Scariest Man on Earth,”(Russian oil tycoon) Igor Sechin. Often the sense of the verb isn't apparent from the headline. For example, the Jerusalem Post in 2011 stated that “Normal China-Iran business ties shouldn't be sanctioned.” Only by reading the full article, however, does it become apparent that the author is saying that business ties shouldn't be penalized. I particularly enjoyed this headline that appeared in Slate in January 2013: “Is There Anything Left To Sanction in North Korea?” Only North Korea's egregious reputation makes it clear that the author came to bury Kim Jong-un not to praise him.

My advice to the careful writer is to avoid the verbal use of the word “sanction” by itself if there is any possibility of the meaning being misconstrued. Comprehension can be enhanced by specifying “issue (or levy) sanctions against” or disapproval and “give sanction to” for approval. As a noun,because the negative sense of the word is dominant, I would avoid sentences such as “USA and Britain sought UN sanction against Russia” and replace “sanction” with a word such as “authorization.”

Howard next book Word Play: Arranged & Deranged Wit will be published in 2015.

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