Consider whether to sanction the non-sanctioned use of sanction
“This movement … is a way to ask you … to sanction Guy
Turcotte by keeping him at Pinel.”
—Attorney Guy Poupart, The Gazette, March 17
Notwithstanding Poupart’s purported usage, sanction when used as a verb usually means “permit” or “authorize,” 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 possibility of non-comprehension.
The OED explains how the dichotomy in meanings occurred. “Sanction” 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 action that are not approved 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,” to use another Palin expression, on this point.)
Notwithstanding the above, in the last five years I’ve noticed an increasing use of the verb sanction to mean “penalize,” in the manner employed by Poupart in the opening quotation. This is no doubt 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 From Gay (Happy) to Gay (Homosexual) and other mysterious semantic shifts will be published by Ronsdale Press in 2013.