Sanction has two nearly opposite meanings: to sanction can be to approve of something, but it can also mean to punish, or speak harshly to. Likewise, a sanction can be a punishment or approval. Very confusing — the person who invented this word should be publicly sanctioned!

See if you can guess the meaning of sanction in the following contexts. Before invading Iraq, the U.S. and its allies first imposed sanctions on the country, refusing to supply the country with much-needed trade items. Did you guess that sanction = "punishment"? You were right! But by trading with China at the same time, the U.S. quietly sanctioned that nation's known instances of human rights abuses. Did you guess that sanction = "approval"? You're right again!

Primary Meanings of sanction

official permission or approval
give authority or permission to
a mechanism of social control for enforcing a society's standards
impose a penalty on; inflict punishment on
Full Definitions of sanction

n official permission or approval

authorisation, authority, authorization
Type of:
approval to do something

n formal and explicit approval

countenance, endorsement, imprimatur, indorsement, warrant
O.K., OK, okay, okeh, okey
an endorsement
an endorsement made in a passport that allows the bearer to enter the country issuing it
nihil obstat
the phrase used by the official censor of the Roman Catholic Church to say that a publication has been examined and contains nothing offensive to the church
Type of:
approval, commendation
a message expressing a favorable opinion

n the act of final authorization

“it had the sanction of the church”
benefit of clergy
sanction by a religious rite
by the sanction or authority of
nihil obstat
authoritative approval
Type of:
authorisation, authorization, empowerment
the act of conferring legality or sanction or formal warrant

v give authority or permission to

Type of:
authorise, authorize, empower
give or delegate power or authority to

v give sanction to

O.K., approve, okay
disapprove, reject
deem wrong or inappropriate
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approve officially
back, endorse, indorse, plump for, plunk for, support
be behind; approve of
support a person for a position
guarantee, warrant
stand behind and guarantee the quality, accuracy, or condition of
champion, defend
protect or fight for as a champion
Type of:
authorise, authorize, clear, pass
grant authorization or clearance for

v give religious sanction to, such as through on oath

Type of:
O.K., approve, okay
give sanction to

n a mechanism of social control for enforcing a society's standards

Type of:
social control
control exerted (actively or passively) by group action

n the act of punishing

penalisation, penalization, penalty, punishment
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castigation, chastisement
verbal punishment
corporal punishment
the infliction of physical injury on someone convicted of committing a crime
cruel and unusual punishment
punishment prohibited by the 8th amendment to the U.S. Constitution; includes torture or degradation or punishment too severe for the crime committed
a punishment in which a student must stay at school after others have gone home
correction, discipline
the act of punishing
economic strangulation
punishment of a group by cutting off commercial dealings with them
putting someone in prison or in jail as lawful punishment
medicine, music
punishment for one's actions
punishment inflicted on yourself
threat of a penalty
penance, self-abasement, self-mortification
voluntary self-punishment in order to atone for some wrongdoing
beating, drubbing, lacing, licking, thrashing, trouncing, whacking
the act of inflicting corporal punishment with repeated blows
self-punishment inflicted by whipping
the act of slapping on the buttocks
electric shock
the use of electricity to administer punishment or torture
capital punishment, death penalty, executing, execution
putting a condemned person to death
gantlet, gauntlet
a form of punishment in which a person is forced to run between two lines of men facing each other and armed with clubs or whips to beat the victim
kick in the butt
punishment inflicted by kicking the victim in the behind
lapidation, stoning
the act of pelting with stones; punishment inflicted by throwing stones at the victim (even unto death)
Type of:
social control
control exerted (actively or passively) by group action

v impose a penalty on; inflict punishment on

penalise, penalize, punish
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avenge, retaliate, revenge
take revenge for a perceived wrong
smear the body of (someone) with tar and feathers; done in some societies as punishment
execute, put to death
kill as a means of socially sanctioned punishment
punish by putting in a pillory
inflict severe punishment on
punish with an arbitrary penalty
victimise, victimize
punish unjustly
punish severely; excoriate
correct, discipline, sort out
punish in order to gain control or enforce obedience
get back, get even
take revenge or even out a score
kill by nailing onto a cross
burn at the stake
hang, string up
kill by hanging

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