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Sanction

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Brock
1377803.  Fri Mar 26, 2021 5:25 am Reply with quote

If ever I could wish a word out of existence, it would be "sanction". It's in the news again this morning, and I think it's one of the most confusing words in the language. Here are the main definitions given by the Concise Oxford English Dictionary:

sanction (noun, 1)
a threatened penalty for disobeying a law or rule
(sanctions) measures taken by a state to coerce another to conform to an international agreement or norms of conduct

sanction (noun, 2)
official permission or approval for an action

sanction (verb, 1) [corresponding to noun sense 2]
give official sanction (=approval) for

sanction (verb, 2) [corresponding to noun sense 1]
impose a sanction or penalty on

For both the noun and the verb, the two meanings are almost the opposite of each other. Until a few years ago, my experience was that the noun was mainly used in the sense "penalty" and the verb was mainly used in the sense "approve". This was confusing, but rarely led to ambiguity. As recently as 2015, Fowler's Modern English Usage said, of verb sense 2, "this use, though now well over half a century old, is still far from common".

Yet it now seems that this sense of the verb is becoming the dominant one. I'm reading headlines like "China sanctions UK businesses, MPs and lawyers in Xinjiang row". This means not that China has given its official approval to those businesses, MPs and lawyers, but that it has imposed penalties on them.

In a way, this makes more sense, because it corresponds to the more commonly used sense of the noun; but it's downright misleading to those of us who were brought up to think of "approve" as the dominant meaning of the verb.

Suppose I said to you "your behaviour will not be sanctioned". Would you take it as meaning "your behaviour will not be approved of" (i.e. it's not OK) or "your behaviour will not be punished" (i.e. it's OK)?

 
CB27
1377830.  Fri Mar 26, 2021 9:15 am Reply with quote

The English language is replete with words that not only have multiple meanings, but have meanings that are almost if not fully the opposite of each other.

It's all to do with the context of the use, and if that's still not clear, you ask :p

 
Brock
1377833.  Fri Mar 26, 2021 9:37 am Reply with quote

CB27 wrote:
The English language is replete with words that not only have multiple meanings, but have meanings that are almost if not fully the opposite of each other.


Yes, they're known as "auto-antonyms". Wikipedia lists some of them here (including "sanction"), and I'm pretty sure the subject has been discussed on this forum before.

For me, the stand-out thing about "sanction" (verb) is the way that its dominant meaning seems to have been reversed in such a short period of time. As recently as 2014, David Marsh in the Guardian was complaining about the DWP talking about "sanctioning" benefit claimants (i.e. reducing or stopping their benefit):

https://www.theguardian.com/media/mind-your-language/2014/nov/11/sanctions-mind-your-language

Now it seems that everyone is being "sanctioned" when they're penalized in some way. I didn't even know that a state could "sanction" citizens of another state; I thought states normally applied sanctions to each other, not to individuals.

Quote:
It's all to do with the context of the use, and if that's still not clear, you ask :p


You might not be in a position to, particularly if someone was about to inflict a punishment on you.

 
CB27
1377848.  Fri Mar 26, 2021 1:49 pm Reply with quote

You simply say "Madam, would you please put down that red hot poke for a moment and tell me what you meant by 'sanction'? Also, what was the safe word again?".

 
crissdee
1377850.  Fri Mar 26, 2021 1:52 pm Reply with quote

This reminded me of something I have heard in a couple of US TV shows. One of the characters will fall foul of the law in some minor way and will be fined. The court/state/whatever will then "garnish" their wages (meaning take a regular amount out) until the fine is paid. Absolutely the opposite of any meaning I had connected to the word "garnish".

 
Brock
1377853.  Fri Mar 26, 2021 2:08 pm Reply with quote

I hadn't come across that before. Here's an attempt at an explanation of the etymology, although it seems to raise as many questions as it answers:

https://www.cjr.org/language_corner/garnishing.php

 
suze
1377867.  Fri Mar 26, 2021 5:45 pm Reply with quote

As far as I can tell, garnish in that sense is defined only in the US, Australia, and some but not all provinces of Canada.

But what is the same thing called in Britain? I think it's most commonly used here against people who don't pay their council tax, but neither the good husband nor I know what it's actually called.

 
Leith
1377869.  Fri Mar 26, 2021 6:25 pm Reply with quote

The legal mechanism for reclaiming council tax from wages appears to be called an 'Attachment of Earnings' order. The actual amounts taken are just referred to as 'deductions' in what texts I can find on the matter.

Which reminds me, I need to get round to paying mine this weekend...

 
PDR
1377870.  Fri Mar 26, 2021 6:28 pm Reply with quote

I believe the term they use is "an attachment of earnings order" when it's taken from salary at source, and of course if they do it by allocating a portion of some asset value (eg a house) it's called a lein.

PDR

 
Jenny
1377914.  Sat Mar 27, 2021 12:34 pm Reply with quote

Lien.

 
Alexander Howard
1377926.  Sat Mar 27, 2021 2:21 pm Reply with quote

There is a 'garnishee order' in English procedure. It is for seizing a debt someone else owes your debtor, which is usually a bank account. I don't know if lawyers 'garnish' the account - that use of 'garnish' might be a back-formation.

 
Brock
1377929.  Sat Mar 27, 2021 2:48 pm Reply with quote

Alexander Howard wrote:
There is a 'garnishee order' in English procedure. It is for seizing a debt someone else owes your debtor, which is usually a bank account. I don't know if lawyers 'garnish' the account - that use of 'garnish' might be a back-formation.


I don't think it is. "Garnish" appears to be the original verb (as described in my link above), and the suffix "-ee" has its usual legal meaning. However, in US usage "garnishee" has, confusingly, also become a verb, with the same specialized meaning as "garnish", e.g. "he had just received the news that his wages would be garnisheed to pay a tax debt". Perhaps this was to distinguish it from the more usual meaning of "garnish".

 

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