Etymology Grammar Linguistics Usage

You really got a hold on me

Q: I’m seeing the word “ahold” a lot in books—and not just in dialogue! I’m miffed, but a fellow librarian says it’s an archaic form like “aholt” that’s now an acceptable variation of “a hold.” If that’s the case, what part of speech is it?

A: As you know, the word “hold” is not only a verb (to grasp) but a noun (a “hold” is a grip). The verb preceded the noun; it was first recorded in the 10th century, the noun in the 11th.

In the common expression “get hold of,” it’s a noun. Sometimes the article “a” is added: “get a hold of.” Neither of these usages raises any hackles.

But the combination of the noun and the article into one word—as in “get ahold of”—gets people’s attention.

This usage is often criticized by language commentators as “dialectal” (peculiar to a region, social class, etc.), or “colloquial” (found more often in speech than in writing).

For example, Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.) calls it colloquial and says the usual idiom is just “hold … with no a- prefixed.”

Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) calls “ahold” a “casualism” (an informal usage).

And Pat’s grammar and usage book Woe Is I recommends “get hold” or “get a hold” instead.

However, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) include “ahold” without any such reservations, which means they regard it as standard English.

American Heritage and Merriam-Webster’s—the two standard dictionaries we rely on the most—cite examples from the writings of contemporary authors.

AH quotes Jimmy Breslin: “I knew I could make it all right if I got … back to the hotel and got ahold of that bottle of brandy.” And M-W quotes Norman Mailer: “if you could get ahold of a representative.”

As for its part of speech, both dictionaries identify “ahold” as a noun meaning “hold.”

But the Oxford English Dictionary takes a different view. It still regards “ahold” (which it hyphenates, “a-hold”) as dialectal or colloquial. And it classifies the word as an adverb.

In the OED’s analysis, “ahold” is an adverb formed from the noun “hold” and the prefix “a-,” which is not an article but a preposition.

So “ahold” or “a-hold,” according to the OED editors, is in effect a small prepositional phrase, serving as an adverb.

In explaining the use of “a-” as a prepositional prefix, the OED says it’s often used with a noun or gerund, sometimes hyphenated and sometimes not, to express action.

Most words formed this way are now obsolete or regional, as in “At noon he was still lying abed” or “Froggy went a-courtin’ ” or “It’s been a long time a-coming.”

Historically, “ahold” was once used as a navigational term meaning to sail a ship close to the wind.

It was recorded sometime before 1616 in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In Act I, the boatswain cries: “Lay her a-hold, a-hold!” That use of the word is now obsolete.

The modern sense of the word emerged in the 1870s. Here’s an OED citation from an 1878 issue of Scribner’s Monthly: “With one bee a-hold of your collar … and another a-hold of each arm.”

And here’s a 20th-century example, from Ernest Hemingway’s short-story collection In Our Time (1926): “Nick dropped his wrist. ‘Listen,’ Ad Francis said. ‘Take ahold again.’ ” 

Since you mention “aholt,” it’s interesting to note that the OED’s first citation for the current meaning of “ahold” is spelled this way.

It’s from Edward Eggleston’s novel The End of the World (1872): “You gripped a-holt of the truth.”

“Aholt,” which doesn’t appear in standard dictionaries, can be traced to what the OED calls “an unexplained phonetic variant” of “hold” as “holt.”

The OED has many citations for “holt,” dating from around 1375 to modern times.

In fact, it says “hold” is still pronounced “holt” in some midland and southern counties of England, as well as regionally in the US. So it’s dialect, not archaic.

But getting back to “ahold,” you can consider it a noun or an adverb, standard English or dialectal. In our opinion, it still has a dialectal flavor and doesn’t belong in formal writing.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says “ahold” is “primarily a spoken construction, and its most frequent appearance is in the transcription of speech.”

(Perhaps if the people quoted were writing instead of speaking, they would have written “a hold.” Who knows?)

As for how to label “ahold,” the M-W usage guide says, “If it is indeed dialectal it is well spread around.”

The word has been recorded in 17 states, both urban and rural and in all parts of the country, according to M-W usage and the Dictionary of American Regional English.

A couple of Google searches suggest that the two-word version is more popular: “a hold,” 16 million hits, vs. “ahold,” 5 million. (Many of the one-worders refer to the Dutch grocery chain Ahold.)

We’ll stick with “hold” or “a hold,” unless we’re going to our local Stop & Shop, an Ahold supermarket. 

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