Get Ahold Of

By Maeve Maddox

A reader objects strongly to the expression “get ahold of,” viewing it as an example of “the slang [that is] slowly and insidiously debasing English.”

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that.

Both the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster provide entries for ahold.

The OED lists ahold as an adverb. The first definition is for an obsolete nautical term meaning “at a position close to the wind.” The second definition given is “So as to hold on to someone or something.” The earliest citation for this use is dated 1850; the most recent, 1994. Both are from American sources:

“The good sailor who had caught ahold of her when she was fallin’, told her to cheer up.” (1850)

He grabbed ahold of the branches of the fallen aspen. (1994)

The OED labels this use of ahold “chiefly regional” and “nonstandard.”

The American dictionary M-W has two entries for ahold, one as an adverb and one as a noun.

The adverb entry gives only the obsolete nautical definition. The noun entry views ahold as a “dialectal” version of “a hold.” According to this definition, ahold functions as a direct object in the expression “to get ahold of.”

The Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary includes definitions of “to get ahold of” without labeling the expression as regional or nonstandard:

to get ahold of something: to get something.
“Drugs are too easy to get ahold of.”

to get ahold of someone: to find or communicate with someone.
“I’d like to get ahold of Debbie and talk to her about this.”

These uses of ahold may be nonstandard, but they have certainly progressed beyond regional status. Here are some examples from the media:

I have no idea where he would have gotten ahold of German pornography. (Station director Ed Harken in the film Anchorman.)

I’m wondering who could have got ahold of your phone because it would have been in your coat, wouldn’t it? (Dr. Watson, British television series Sherlock.

Just wait until the news media gets ahold of this Foley story! (News blog)

Can’t get ahold of qualified, prospective tenant? (Real estate forum)

German television station RTL also got ahold of some images this week. (Photo caption, Spiegle Online International.)

But opponents of the background check system are apparently unconcerned about potentially dangerous people getting ahold of firearms. (Article at Media Matters)

Even when they can’t get ahold of enough borrowed shares, they might sell the shares anyway and simply fail to deliver them three days later when they are due. (Steven Pearlstein, columnist, Washington Post.)

Such a manuscript would be extremely interesting and valuable. George, if you can somehow get ahold of it, that would be great. (Comment on a linguist listserve.)

In my view, “get ahold of” has become an acceptable colloquialism for many speakers. Nevertheless, writers who wish to avoid censure had best replace it with “get hold of.”

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