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Sanctions

An embargo (a law that forbids trade) is a kind of economic sanction.

“Sanction” is a tricky word that deserves some explanation. Originally, the word meant “holy,” and from there it came to mean “legal.” Finally, the word drifted in opposite directions—meaning “legal punishment” or “legal approval.” And that’s the trouble with “sanction”: It has two conflicting meanings. Technically, we say it’s an auto-antonym. Here are a few more examples of auto-antonyms: 

Likewise, the word “sanction” can have nearly opposite meanings. Depending on the context, it could mean: 

Without knowing the context, it is sometimes difficult to tell which is meaning is intended. For example, consider the sentence: “They had the judge’s sanction.” Did the judge penalize them? Or did the judge approve of something they did? Or consider what it would mean if a parent said to a teenager proposing to go out to an all-night party: "I won't sanction that kind of behavior!" Does that mean there is no punishment for going? Or does it mean no parental blessing?

In international relations, the word “sanction” is most often used to mean “economic punishment.” For example, if one country wants to pressure another country to do something (or to stop doing something), it might impose economic sanctions that hurt the economy of the other country. These sanctions might include:

Check Your Understanding

For each sentence below, decide if the word “sanction” means “punishment” or “approval.” Put a “P” in front of the sentence if you believe the word means punishment. Put an “A” in front of the sentence if you believe the word indicates approval. (All these sentences come from actual news articles).

  1. This boxing match is sanctioned by the Nevada Athletic Commission.
  2. The sanction against the football program was finally lifted after 2 years.
  3. Dr. Weinstein has been sanctioned twice by the Victorian Medical Practitioners Board, in 2000 for botched surgery and 2005 for Medicare.
  4. Would you sanction flogging as a punishment for crimes of violence?
  5. The Church will probably refuse to sanction an annulment of the marriage in this case. Their sanction appears very unlikely.
  6. If the couple continues with the wedding the Church may sanction them; this sanction will apply from the moment the ceremony is completed.
  7. The United States placed an economic sanction against Iran for its continuing research into nuclear weaponry.
  8. The UN voted to sanction the country until satisfied it intends to comply with international law; the sanctions will be lifted when the UN is certain this will happen.
  9. The actor believes he has a case for sanctioning the publishers and intends to seek sanctions against them unless they withdraw the unauthorized biography.
  10. The actor alleges he did not sanction the biography; he claims his sanction was not even sought.
  11. The Iraqi dictator has been on the receiving end of punitive sanctions for ten years now.
  12. Lawmakers don't have the authority to sanction her for such a violation.
  13. The full committee is set to sanction Rangel tomorrow — imposing a punishment that could range from a reprimand to expulsion.
  14. Russian track and field officials may face sanction and their athletics body deregistered as the International Olympic Committee demands.
  15. Soon after, the hawks of the Bush Administration began preparing for war against Iraq without UN sanction.
  16. With the sanction of the company, the businessman was able to go past the front gate onto the company's property.
  17. The businessman was sanctioned for going through the front gate without permission.