1. Authoritative permission or approval that makes a course of action valid. See Synonyms at permission.
2. Support or encouragement, as from public opinion or established custom.
3. A consideration, influence, or principle that dictates an ethical choice.
a. The penalty for noncompliance with a law or legal order.
b. A penalty, specified or in the form of moral pressure, that acts to ensure compliance with a social standard or norm.
c. A coercive measure adopted usually by several nations acting together against a nation violating international law.
tr.v. sanc·tioned, sanc·tion·ing, sanc·tions
1. To give official authorization or approval to: voting rights that are sanctioned by law.
2. To encourage or tolerate by indicating approval: His colleagues sanctioned his new research.
3. To penalize, as for violating a moral principle or international law: "Half of the public defenders of accused murderers were sanctioned by the Texas bar for legal misbehavior or incompetence" (Garry Wills).
[Middle English, enactment of a law, from Old French, ecclesiastical decree, from Latin sānctiō, sānctiōn-, binding law, penal sanction, from sānctus, holy; see SANCTIFY.]
Word History: Occasionally, a word can have contradictory meanings. Such a case is represented by sanction, which can mean both "to allow, encourage" and "to punish so as to deter." Sanction comes from the Latin word sānctiō, meaning "a law or decree that is sacred or inviolable." This noun is related to the Latin verb sancīre, which basically meant "to render sacred or inviolable by a religious act," but was also used in such extended meanings as "to ordain," "to decree," and "to forbid under pain of punishment." Thus from the beginning, two fundamental notions of law were wrapped up in the word: law as something that permits or approves and law that forbids by punishing. In English, the word sanction is first recorded in the mid-1500s in the meaning "law, decree." Not long after, in the 1600s, it also came to be used to refer to the penalty enacted to cause one to obey a law or decree. From the noun, a verb sanction was created in the 18th century meaning "to allow by law," but it wasn't until the second half of the 1900s that it began to mean "to punish (for breaking a law)." English has a few other words that can refer to opposites, such as the verbs dust (meaning both "to remove dust from" and "to put dust on") and trim (meaning both "to cut something away" and "to add something as an ornament").
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2019 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Indo-European & Semitic Roots Appendices
Thousands of entries in the dictionary include etymologies that trace their origins back to reconstructed proto-languages. You can obtain more information about these forms in our online appendices:
The Indo-European appendix covers nearly half of the Indo-European roots that have left their mark on English words. A more complete treatment of Indo-European roots and the English words derived from them is available in our Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.