‘Sanctions’ and ‘flywheels’ dominate the news

Athens applied sanctions to a rival city-state in 432 B.C., but the word acquired its current economic and political sense after World War I.


News coverage of the war in Ukraine continues to foreground interesting words, such as sanctions and flywheel

The West’s primary response to the invasion has been to apply economic sanctions to Russia. The word sanction is what’s variously called an auto-antonym, contronym, or Janus word (from the two-faced Roman deity), because it carries two nearly opposite meanings. If your employer sanctioned your request to reduce your hours, it could mean either that your boss approved of your attempt to find a better work-life balance, or that she penalized you for it. 

Today’s newsworthy sanctions are the punitive kind – they are “economic or military action taken ... as a coercive measure, usually to enforce a violated law or treaty,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The idea of economic sanctions is ancient – Athens applied them to a rival city-state in 432 B.C. – but the word first acquired this particular economic and political sense after World War I.  

Sanction’s opposite meanings make sense if we look at its history. It derives from the Latin verb sancīre, “to ordain, decree” or “to render sacred or inviolable.” Sanction was first used in a religious context, to mean a law or ecclesiastical decree. The word then came to refer to two ways that compliance with such decrees could be enforced: the carrot (“rewards for obedience”) and the stick (“punishments for disobedience”). Today’s “approval” sense of sanction is the carrot; the “penalize” sense, the stick. 

Since Russia invaded, opinion columnists and journalists have tried to identify the flywheels of the conflict. Thomas Friedman speculated in The New York Times that “the core flywheel” would be what happens between Ukrainian and Russian troops on the ground; Italian journalist Francesco Bussoletti wrote that a no-fly zone over Ukraine is inevitable because the March 10 Russian attack on a children’s hospital was “the flywheel.” A Ukrainian news agency argued for the importance of the moment when “the flywheel of Western sanctions started moving at full speed.”

Flywheels are large, heavy wheels attached to crankshafts in engines that “smooth ... out delivery of power from a motor to a machine.” Business guru Jim Collins popularized the flywheel metaphor in 2001, as a way to explain positive feedback loops or “virtuous cycles.” Momentum is difficult to build – it takes a lot of energy to get the flywheel moving – but once it’s turning, the rotation is easy to maintain. So, when journalists identify flywheels in Ukraine, they are talking about confluences of forces that flow into one another, making a conflict, or solution, self-sustaining.

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