For what will be obvious reasons today, the word “sanction” caught our attention. To be sure, this piece may be read three or four years from now, its context completely forgotten, so here is the context: General Flynn, Trump’s National Security Adviser, resigned last night, evidently over accusations that he had discussed “sanctions” with the Russian Ambassador. The resignation was announced by the New York Times at 11:06 pm, whereupon the cable media went into a kind of melt-down trying to process the sudden, alarming, and indeed seemingly EXPLOSIVE news. This kept Brigitte and me up later than usually. In three years all this will all seem weird at best.
But back to that word. In a nut shell, the word can have two meanings: (1) it is a decree or ordinance which permits something to be done—as in “You have our sanction to proceed”; and (2) a negative order or laws (along with consequences) which penalizes something that has been done—as in “The United States has passed sanctions against Russia for its Crimean invasion.”
Both meanings are reported by Online Etymology Dictionary. The second (negative) sanction is there said to have been first used in 1956. Nothing more is said. But the date has puzzled many word lovers before it puzzled me this morning. 1956? Come on. So what is the root of that date—never mind the word sanction.
The big global event in 1956 was the Suez Crisis. It began in 1956 when Egypt’s Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. In response, Israel, joined by England and France, invaded Egypt. The United States under Eisenhower, joined by the Soviet Union and the United Nations, opposed this move (or let’s say that they failed to sanction the invasion). This failed sanction may be at the root of dating negative sanctions as first entering the dictionaries of the English language. The history is not cited by linguists; what they have to say is presented at this interesting place (link). In his 1956 State of the Union Message, however, Eisenhower did use the following words:
In all things, change is the inexorable law of life. In much of the world the ferment of change is working strongly; but grave injustices are still uncorrected. We must not, by any sanction of ours, help to perpetuate these wrongs.
Could that be the original framing of a negative sanction made some time before Eisenhower actually used such a sanction against the Israeli-English-French invasion of Egypt?
Sanction derives from the Latin sanctionem meaning “act of decreeing or ordaining” and confirming the enactment of a law. The application of this word in ecclesiastical decrees, not least the bestowal of sainthood on the deserving, gives us the sense that sanction is somehow related to sainthood and the sacred. That sense is more or less correct. We certainly have a holy sanction which makes the saint—and the unholy sanction which can cost a general his job.