Notify, mandate and sanction

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Thomas West (@IntermarkLS) has tweeted:

“In BrE I keep seeing things like “the last address you notified to the company” and “the complaint notified to the police.” This sounds so wrong in AmE (we notify someone of something; we don’t notify something to someone).”

I refer him to the OED, which gives the following quotation from the Rolls of Parliament in 1433:

“The whiche offre and agrement..[was] notified and communed to all the Lordes.”

On this side of the Atlantic, we have recently acquired an American usage which sounds equally wrong to me, and was until this year very unusual in the UK: the verb “mandate” to mean “compel” (why not use compel, which is not ambiguous?). The problem here is that the normal meaning of the word in British English is “authorise”. The difference, I suppose, is that while both usages are transitive, the AmE usage may be to mandate something, while the BrE usage is only to mandate someone to do something – which AE can also have. So when we read that President Biden has mandated an organisation to enforce the wearing of masks, I wonder why this is so contentious, because to me, the meaning of this sentence is that he has authorised that organisation to enforce mask wearing if it wishes to. The use of notify, however, while it may sound wrong to AmE speakers, at least is not confusing – there is no other meaning of notify.

Sanction is another word with confusing uses. And in this case, the two uses are diametrically opposed. The earliest example quoted in OED is its use as a noun in 1570, where it refers to an ecclesiastical decree (with no sense of either condemnation or approval). Within a hundred years this had become “the penalty enacted in order to enforce obedience to a law”, but at the same time a sanction could now also be the reward for obeying a law (quotations given from 1696 and 1692 respectively).

Since at least the 18th century, a further extension of its meaning has become “something which serves to support, authorize, or confirm an action, procedure, etc.”, with an example from 1727. It is an easy step from there to “permission”.

Interestingly, OED has a quotation from Richard Baxter (1651): “The Law hath two parts, the mandate and the sanction.” Interpret that as you wish!

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