Here's a phrase I just spotted in a (generally very good) paper I'm reading:

[T]he Court has sanctioned the use of speech as evidence in establishing that ....

Is that "sanctioned" in the sense of "approved" or in the sense of "punished" (a common use of the term "sanction" in litigation)? The reader should be able to figure this out from context, but it's usually better not to put the reader to the work of having to do that, or risk even briefly leading the reader in the wrong direction.

So be careful with this contronym, and avoid using it as a verb, except when the context makes things completely clear (for instance, because you have just been talking about Rule 11 sanctions -- a common legal term -- and your use of "sanctioned" clearly links back to the earlier noun phrase).

einhverfr (mail) (www):
Right, we sanctioned Iran's nuclear energy program under the Shah and under Ahmedinejad.

Bad zeugmas and contranyms make for unreadable sentences.
4.5.2009 4:40pm
CrazyTrain (mail):
Contronym? I like that word -- never seen it before, and the source you cite says it is an alternative to "autoantonm." Where've you seen it before? Is it in OED? (Not that that does not make it a "real word." Just curious about its origins.)
4.5.2009 5:04pm
George Weiss (mail) (www):
author really needs to wind up his work.


this is fun
4.5.2009 5:06pm
321 (mail):
Sanction is confusing because it has two meanings that are almost opposite. In most domestic contexts, sanction means 'approval, permission': : voters gave the measure their sanction. In foreign affairs, sanction means 'penalty, deterrent': : international sanctions against the republic go into effect in January.
4.5.2009 5:32pm
"let's roost" typically meaning "let us quickly depart this place", but possibly "let us remain here"
4.5.2009 5:44pm
Michelle Dulak Thomson (mail):

"let's roost" typically meaning "let us quickly depart this place",

I've never heard that one. How on earth did it get started? Was it an acronym, or rhyming slang, or what? (I suppose it could be just "let's all go home [=away from here] to our perches?)
4.5.2009 5:53pm
I bet "let's roost" meaning "let's go home" is adopted/shortened from the phrase "return to the roost." The shortening makes the meaning ambiguous.
4.5.2009 5:57pm
Simon Spero (mail):
A Cognitive Linguist would say that the meaning in each case is sanctioned by the context.
4.5.2009 6:01pm
I think it refers to making a rooster tail; like, when you're surfing down a wave and turn quickly, you generate a rooster tail; or if you peel-out on gravel in your car.
4.5.2009 6:06pm
Laura(southernxyl) (mail) (www):
I suppose "inflammable" might be one. It actually means "flammable". Placards are typically made to say "flammable" for fear people will read the "in" as "un".
4.5.2009 6:16pm
In high school, "commencement" seemed like a contranym.
4.5.2009 7:17pm
it's usually better not to put the reader to the work of having to do that

Ballz. That way lies the Lexile 200 Constitution and other modern degeneracies. So long as the commutator of the meanings is not zero and it is le mot juste, the good writer gives inter alia his reader the pleasure of intellectual stimulation, which God knows most legal writing could use, lest subtropical mountain species diversity be threatened by overcultivation of Coffea arabica.
4.5.2009 7:33pm
josh bornstein (mail) (www):
My favorite is "moot," which I learned growing up as a point that IS open for debate or discussion (as in 'moot court' in law school). But I quickly learned that 99.9% of people use ". . . that is a moot point." as shorthand for "It is an issue that is NOT debatable, or, is no longer debatable or up for discussion."

4.5.2009 7:34pm
Dave N (mail):
Splunge either a) hasn't read Justice Scalia's latest book--Making Your Case, or b) has read it and was posting in order to show the merit of clear writing and Justice Scalia's advocacy of it.
4.5.2009 7:49pm
One of my favorite contranyms is 'peruse'. It can mean either to examine in detail or to read superficially.
4.5.2009 8:04pm
John Moore (www):
Isn't that a spy novel word for "authorized killing?"
4.5.2009 8:23pm

Isn't that a spy novel word for "authorized killing?"

Perfect! It incorporates both "approval" and "punishment".
4.5.2009 8:43pm
frankcross (mail):
OTOH, this sort of ambiguity provides a fantastic out if your first impression is wrong. "I meant the other meaning of sanction!"
4.5.2009 9:17pm
Jacob Berlove:
"table" (v)- It's used in this country to mean killing an idea, but in parliamentary speak it's used to introduce a motion.
4.5.2009 9:22pm
Craig Oren (mail):
FWIW (probably nothing), I use "sanctioned" in the sense of "allowed" and "imposed sanctions" as a way of saying "imposed a penalty." I believe that's what I was taught years ago in school and so I regard saying "sanctioned" in the sense of "penalized" as incorrect usage.

But Eugene is right; the word has become too ambiguous to be useful.
4.5.2009 9:36pm
A: Is is OK to use contronyms?
B: I enjoin it.
4.5.2009 9:47pm
MQuinn (www):
I noticed this usage in the LA Times on April 3, 2009:

Although Democrats have sanctioned the president's vision for transforming huge sectors of the economy, they remain fiercely divided over the details [of the budget].

4.5.2009 9:49pm
resh (mail):
Well, alrighty then, I'll go with the buzz word of the day: bailout.

It once was a simple noun describing the act of jumping the hell out, as in, haul ass; now it pretty much is understood to mean the opposite, as in, we're jumping aboard to cover your ass.

Curiouser and curiouser.
4.5.2009 10:23pm
Lowly Public Defender from Mississippi:
Of course the reader can figure this out from context.

When has a court ever sanctioned (i.e. penalized) anyone for trying to use a particular form of evidence? I have not encountered a single example of this in over ten years - nor have I ever heard of one. The court will either sanction (i.e. allow) evidence or it will not sanction (i.e. allow) it, but it will never sanction (i.e. penalize) anyone for trying.
4.5.2009 10:48pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
CrazyTrain: I saw "contronym" somewhere, then Googled it, "contranym," and "auto-antonym," saw that "contronym" was more common, and used it. But I wouldn't have used any of them in a serious context; here, I was using "contronym" precisely because I thought it was an amusing term, which was fine for a light blog post, plus the link made it clear.

Lowly Public Defender: I don't think you'd be sanctioned in the sense of having to pay money simply for trying to violate the rules of evidence, unless you also violated a court order (e.g., an order issued in response to a motion in limine to exclude evidence) in the process. But you could get a nasty talking to -- a form of sanction, especially if done in front of the jury -- if the judge thinks that the evidence is clearly inadmissible and that you're just trying to cheat. Plus it's not obvious that one can never be sanctioned for introducing certain evidence; certainly it wouldn't be obvious to second- or third-year students who make up much of the audience for a student paper (both when they read the article to decide whether to publish it, and when they read it in doing research for their own scholarship).

Resh: Are you sure about your chronology? I'm not sure you're wrong, but my sense is that "bail out" is a reference to the well-established sense of "bail" in the sense of get water out of a boat that would otherwise sink (or perhaps to "bail" in the sense of getting someone out of jail, and figuratively out of a tough spot, or perhaps both).
4.5.2009 11:42pm
Lowly Public Defender from Mississippi:
Eugene Volokh:

What you are saying here would or should only apply when one is *attempting* to have something admitted into evidence. For example - if the court has ruled that a certain gun is inadmissible, and the prosecutor jumps up, inadmissible gun-in-hand, and proclaims to the jury "here is the gun the defendant used to murder the victim", sure, maybe she'll get sanctioned (i.e. suffer some penalty).

This quote refers to the USE of evidence. It is impossible to USE evidence if the court won't allow it. How on earth could the court allow evidence and then impose sanctions for using it?

I think you may be underestimating the intelligence of your students.
4.6.2009 12:14am
Eugene Volokh (www):
Lowly: Sorry, on reflection, I think my earlier response was incorrect. The quote, after all, was taking about the Court, which is to say the Supreme Court. The negative interpretation of "sanction" in "[T]he Court has sanctioned the use of speech as evidence ..." would be that the Court has punished (by reversal or some such) such use. That would be an imprecise use of "sanction," to be sure, but such imprecise uses happen. And if the reader had just been thinking about "sanctions" in the negative sense in a different context, that might well be the first inference the reader would draw.

To be sure (as I noted), the reader will probably be intelligent enough to figure out the intended meaning from context. But why put the reader to the trouble of figuring them out, and why interrupt what should be the seamless flow of the article, when one could just say "the Court has approved the use of speech as evidence" or "the Court has allowed the use of speech as evidence" and avoid even the momentary wrong turn?
4.6.2009 12:26am
josh bornstein: My favorite is "moot," which I learned growing up as a point that IS open for debate or discussion (as in 'moot court' in law school). But I quickly learned that 99.9% of people use ". . . that is a moot point." as shorthand for "It is an issue that is NOT debatable, or, is no longer debatable or up for discussion."

While according to the dictionary, "moot" can have those different, perhaps even contradictory meanings, have you ever seen/heard the word used to characterize anything that currently mattered? Yes, "moot courts" are for debating, but their strictly academic exercises or for practice purposes, aren't they, not the real thing, if you will. Something might have been an open question in the past, but wasn't moot then, becoming so only after it was subsequently settled or rendered effectively inconsequential.
4.6.2009 1:24am
I've always thought it peculiar that a word could have diametrically opposite meanings, and thus one had to understand the context in which it was being used, with "sanction" a most excellent example. A "Janus word," after the two-faced Roman god, no?

A legal word that has always perplexed me is "colorable." How is it that Black's offers a definition so unlike the way in which it is commonly employed? As Black's would have it, "colorable" is close to "bogus," whereas in common parlance, at least among lawyers, it means that there may be some merit to a claim or argument, though it isn't a clear, unequivocal slam-dunk winner (a la George Tenet), right? If you have a colorable claim, you may survive a motion for summary judgment and won't be sanctioned for pressing a frivolous claim. (Or do I have this all wrong, which must be allowed as a possibility?)

And while we are talking about words in legal context, what does it mean to "rebut" or to "substantiate." When one has rebutted, has one just made their counterargument, or have they disposed of the other sides one? When one has presented "substantiating" evidence, have they proven the point with that "substantiating" evidence or just adduced support for the point they are trying to make? I think that neither "rebut," nor "substantiate" do the whole thing, that is get the ball across the goal line of persuasion, only try for that ends, but I'm uncertain of it. What say others?
4.6.2009 1:35am
but their strictly academic exercises...
neurodoc, of course, meant to say, "they're strictly academic exercises..."
4.6.2009 1:37am
markm (mail):
Resh: "Bail out" has three literal meanings.

1) Removing water from inside a boat. (Perhaps from "bail" meaning "bucket handle"?)
2) Arranging a bond to get someone accused of a crime out of jail. (From "bail" meaning the bond.)
3) Parachuting from an airplane that has become unflyable.

You cannot confuse these in context. The problem arises when the phrase is used figuratively - which metaphor was intended?
4.6.2009 6:46am
markm (mail):

In high school, "commencement" seemed like a contranym.

The idea was that graduation was not the end of school but the beginning of life. Now that public schools have apparently given up on teaching most students what they need to know to earn a living and function as adults, and become (at best) a preparation for college, the ceremony should be renamed "continuation".
4.6.2009 7:03am
resh (mail):
Okey-dokey. I've been convinced by some replies above and, accordingly, indulge a bailout of how I construed bailout.
4.6.2009 8:20am
CDU (mail) (www):

Okey-dokey. I've been convinced by some replies above and, accordingly, indulge a bailout of how I construed bailout.

Resh's definition of bailout is too big to fail!
4.6.2009 11:13am
Until about 2 minutes ago I would've thought that "moot court" was obviously so called because it's not real court; i.e. the proceedings are meaningless, and so "moot." But looking at, I see that first meaning of the word is "open to debate." I really had no idea that was a meaning, even after 3 years of law school. Interesting.
4.6.2009 12:02pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
Entmoot. Article provides a brief etymology of the word. More history of moot's meaning here.
4.6.2009 4:45pm
Milhouse (www):
Or just stop using "sanctioned" as shorthand for "imposed sanctions".
4.6.2009 5:17pm
Milhouse (www):

"table" (v)- It's used in this country to mean killing an idea, but in parliamentary speak it's used to introduce a motion.

In both cases it means literally putting a proposal on an actual table. The difference is which table.

In the UK parliament and other parliaments based on it, the government's ministers and the opposition shadow ministers sit at a table in the middle of the room. (That's why they're called "front benchers". Other MPs sit behind their respective leaders, so they're called "back benchers".) When a minister or shadow minister wants to introduce any document into the record and discuss it, he must put at least one copy on the table, so the other people sitting at it can pick it up and read it and know what the $#^&% he's talking about.

In the USA there is no such table. Copies of proposals and documents are circulated among all members. But there is another table - at one side of the room, up against the wall. It's kind of like the side table on which you pile all your junk mail, theoretically to sort through later, but in practise never to be seen again. Motions are laid on this table in order for debate to resume at some unspecified future date, which never comes.
4.6.2009 5:31pm

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