Etymology of the word sanction

My brother mentioned that my blog’s title makes it sound like I’ve been excommunicated from the Church or something. When I asked why, he said that the phrase “Religiously Sanctioned” sounded like the Church was pushing economic sanctions against my wife and I’s “co-habitation,” like the U.S. to pre-invasion Iraq. I laughed nervously. Nobody but him would think of it that way, right? No, he says. A close family friend thought the same thing.

This got me wondering about etymology (when I should have been worried about public/internet persona, I guess). How did the word sanction mean two completely different things?

Google’s dictionary defines sanction thusly:

1. (v.) Give official permission or approval for (an action)

2. (v.) Impose a sanction or penalty on

3. (n.) A threatened penalty for disobeying a law or rule

There are more specific defintions, but these will suffice.

It turns out that the original verb for sanction means to ratify or give official approval for, while the noun for sanction means the third definition — a threatened penalty for disobeying a law or rule. So yes, on face value it could go either way, and it’s easy how the third defintion (“threat of penalty”) evolved from the more neutral sounding definition (“official permission”).

The roots are where it gets interesting, however.

Two roots are identified for the origion of sanction. There is the Latin word sanctionem, which means the “act of decreeing” or “a decree or ordinance.” There is also sanctus, which sanctionem probably derives from. Sanctus meant “to decree, confirm, ratify, or make sacred.” The word saint for example, comes from sanctus, as well as words like sanctify. The original usage for sanction was used especially for ecclesiastical decrees, and the more bland “official permission” definition didn’t come about until 1797. The more recent idea of sanction as a threat of penalty didn’t come about until modern times.

So yeah. Religiously Sanctioned Co-habitation Chronicles. I think it’s an appropriate title still. And the best part is, if I do get excommunicated, I won’t have to change the blog title![1]


[1] I am not planning on getting excommunicated anytime soon.


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