• sanction •
Part of Speech: Verb, Noun
Meaning: 1. [Verb] To permit, encourage, officially approve. 2. [Verb] To penalize, to forbid or discourage by exacting penalties.
Notes: Richard Lederer has called words that have two contradictory meanings "contronyms"—as good a name as we need. Today's contronym, when used as a noun, distinguishes its contradictory meanings by the use of discrete prepositions. A sanction to usually indicates permission while a sanction against indicates penalization. That distinction does not carry over to the verb: "The principal sanctioned short skirts," could mean that she approved them or that she forbade them. Other contranyms in English include cleave (to/apart), clip (onto/off), rent (to/from) and wind up (start/finish).
In Play: Using a contronym requires the listener's knowing which of its meanings applies: "Iran was sanctioned for producing weapons of mass destruction by the UN long ago." We must deduce from the negative connotations of 'weapons of mass destruction' that here the verb means "penalize". "I hope using the BMW to pull the stump out of the back yard was sanctioned by Mom or Dad," however, sounds more like approval.
Word History: Today's Good Word comes from Latin sanctio(n) "consecration, confirmation" from sancire "to make holy". The past participle of this verb is sanctus, which French inherited and converted to saint. The Proto-Indo-European root, *sa[n]k- "holy, sacred", contains a Fickle N, which comes and goes as it pleases historically. In sancire it is present, but in sacer "holy", borrowed by English as sacred, it is not. An interesting relative of all these words is sacrosanct, which contains this root both ways: with and without the N. (We were delighted to sanction the use of this word, sent to us by Thel Casper, in our Good Word series.)
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