Saints and Sanctity
The Latin adjective sanctus, meaning “consecrated” or “holy,” is the root of a family of words that sometimes but not always have a religious context. Definitions of those words follow.
Saint (from the Anglo-French word seint) originally was simply an adjective applied to the name of a person who had been canonized, or officially designated as holy, but it soon became a noun and eventually a verb as well, though that latter usage is rare. By extension, it informally describes a person of remarkable patience or virtue.
Saint, in reference to a person or as part of a place name, is spelled out in formal contexts, but occasionally it is abbreviated to St. (In place names, the Spanish masculine and feminine equivalents, San and Santa, respectively, are never abbreviated.) As a surname, it is spelled out or abbreviated according to personal preference (in French usage, it is spelled out and hyphenated to the following word); consult a biographical dictionary for accuracy.
Sanctity is the quality of holiness; sanctimony and sanctitude are less common synonyms, though the former is often seen in its adjectival form, sanctimonious, to refer pejoratively to someone who is falsely pious. (The positive sense is obsolete.) To sanctify is to make holy. A sanctum is a holy place; the Latin phrase sanctum sanctorum, meaning “holy of holies,” has been borrowed directly into English, and in secular contexts, “inner sanctum” refers to a private place of retreat.
Sanctuary originally referred to a building designated for worship (it also applied to a sacred relic or any other holy object), and because some churches served as refuges where fugitives were generally immune from arrest, the word was applied outside of religious contexts to a place of protection or safety, including one set aside as wildlife refuge.
The adjective sacrosanct means “especially sacred” and, by extension, applies to any belief adhered to with great devotion. (A follow-up post will discuss sacred and related words.) To sanction is to make sacred or to confirm or decree; the word also applies, as a noun, to an act of doing so or the confirmation or decree itself. As with other related terms, it also has a secular connotation, and in this sense is a near contronym (also known as a contranym or autoantonym): Sanction means approval or permission, but it also applies to punitive but nonviolent measures one or more nations take to compel another nation to conform to international law. (The word also pertains to something that prompts action or judgment in response to a question of morality.)
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