Word: beholden

Pronunciation: bə-HOHL-d(ə)n

Part of Speech: adjective

Definition: owing thanks or having a duty to someone in return for help or a service

Source: Oxford Dictionaries


Thanksgiving is this week, so I thought it would be fun to share a vocabulary word that fits the occasion. I researched synonyms for “thankful”, but most of the words that came up were pretty common, such as “grateful”, “appreciative”, and “obliged”. However, I did manage to find a word that I wasn’t yet familiar with, and though it may not qualify as an exact synonym of “thankful”, it’s at least related enough to have made it into the latter’s thesaurus entry. Still, I can see why this word isn’t as common; while it’s good to be “grateful” for what you have, you don’t necessarily want to be “beholden” to others for it!

To be “beholden” is to owe thanks or have a duty to someone in return for help or a service. The word arose in late Middle English and is the former past participle of an otherwise unrecorded definition of the verb “behold”, in the sense “bound”. This verb stems from the Old English verb bihaldan “to retain”, which comprises the prefix bi- “throughout” and the verb haldan “to hold”.

While “beholden” is listed as a word related to “thankful”, it’s really more of a synonym for “obliged”, which means to “make someone legally or morally bound to an action or course of action”. Of course, to “be obliged” also means to “be indebted or grateful”, so “beholden” could probably be used politely in this sense as well. At the very least, being an uncommon word, I would recommend it for historical or even technical writing. If your characters often feel indebted to each other for help or services exchanged, “beholden” may be a good word to add to your list!

What are your thoughts on this word? Any suggestions for future “Word of the Week” featured words?

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