Sorry if you were trying to get ahold of me. I was… What? Did you say something? No? OK. Well, as I was saying, I was trying to get ahold of some parts for my… Yes? I’m sure you said something. Well, you look like you’re about to say something. Come on, grab ahold of yourself. I…

What’s not a word?

Are you kidding me?

Look, I grew up with the phrase get ahold of. Yes, one word; I’ve seen it in print enough times.

Get hold of? I mean, yes, I guess people say that too, but what’s your point? People say come around and come round, and no one is getting all twisted up about it or saying the English language isn’t big enough for both of them. Because, come on, the English language is big enough for anything. It’s as capacious as a suburban American big-box store parking lot. If we don’t have more than one word for something, it’s weird.

Well, I’m not going to force you to use ahold. But I wouldn’t say that hold is an exact equivalent. Sure, there are places where ahold can be replaced by hold – as in grab hold of this or grab ahold of this – and the main difference is just the rhythm and that handy extra grip of the a-, like a thumb adding to the four fingers of hold. But that a- also has a sort of prepositional sense to it – there’s a sense of a- that means ‘to’ (seen in a-hunting we will go and also as in well-known words such as ahead) – and so can have more of an implication of motion and of presence. And, on the other hand, because of patterns of usage, it might tend more to bring to mind interpersonal contact. 

Consider this sentence, from the Journal of Biblical Literature in 1934 (thanks, Google Books!):

Haggai had no further interest in the nations than to get hold of their money.

What if it were

Haggai had no further interest in the nations than to get ahold of their money.

If it’s not making you think of trying to phone their cash, it at least might more clearly posit that there definitely is money, and a defined amount of it.

How about this sentence, from the 2019 book Forever Alpha by John K. Balor:

In Earthbound, he is willing to kill all the Kaldorians, to get ahold of their ship.

How about without the a?

In Earthbound, he is willing to kill all the Kaldorians, to get hold of their ship.

OK, yes, the differences are subtle. And they’re not lexicalized – a dictionary won’t tell you that one means one thing and the other means another. It’s not even like further and farther, where there is an acknowledged tendency for one to be used figuratively more than the other. This is partly because many subtle differences in usage aren’t reflected in dictionary definitions. And it’s partly because your dictionary might not have ahold – but then again, it might. 

The Oxford English Dictionary has it, though it notes that it’s generally “colloquial” and “nonstandard.” Its earliest citation is 1850. I can show you a use of it by Walt Whitman in the 1892 version of “Song of Myself”: 

Lads ahold of fire-engines and hook-and-ladder ropes no less to me than the gods of the antique wars

But if you check Google Ngrams, you will get a chart showing evidence that it really got into regular published use in the 20th century, and especially the later 20th century, and has not overtaken hold in the contexts it’s used in. But, then, so did quite a lot of other words we have no issue with.

If you’ve clicked on that Ngrams link, you’ll notice a third line, for get a hold of. Of course that makes sense; in fact, if you’re not familiar with English idioms, get a hold of makes more sense than either of get hold of or get ahold of. Notwithstanding that, in my youth I assumed that get a hold of was an error for get ahold of. (I didn’t think get hold of was an error; I thought it was just like come round versus come around.) I don’t think it’s an error now. It’s just the third option! 

And why not? English likes to have all the words and usages it can get ahold of. Some people find our language untidy, but that’s just because it is. (You want tidy? Try Esperanto. Or maybe Finnish.) We have as many words as we can get hold of. Adding a word to English makes me think of that scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, after Indiana Jones has managed to get ahold of the Ark of the Covenant and it’s being added to a vast storeroom of treasures looted from around the world:

But ahold isn’t a word we pilfered from anywhere else. It’s home grown. And I grew up with it, and I still use it and like it. So there.

One response to “ahold

  1. Though I’ve lived in New York State for quite a few years now, I grew up in Texas. And “ahold” was a perfectly good word there. I’m happy to see you write about it.

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