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I just rediscovered the colloquial expression "latch on to [something]" online and would like to know the story to its meaning of "obtain, get", which is presented by CD as AE and CE.

http://www.thefreedictionary.com/latch+on

http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/latch+onto

What I wish you could tell is if this idiom is appropriate for any sense of "obtain, get hold of" (i.e. come into possession, get, acquire, procure, find, as through effort or request). Or is it only suitable for specific contexts, and for certain registers but the most formal ones?

E.g.

He latched onto a fortune in the fur trade. source

I latched onto a good book about repairing plumbing. source

I have to latch onto a hundred bucks by Friday night. source

I don't know where Jane is. Let me try to latch onto her. source

She had already latched onto a new job with the Colorado Association of School Executives... source

Or they managed only in their memories, from a time when people latched onto a good job and then did everything in their power to keep it. source

I, however, latched onto a good little portable typewriter, which I brought with me back to France. source

I even latched onto a nice little leather Coach bag which I think is going to be a good Pad carrier. source

Meanwhile, the golfing world will have to latch onto a substitute, a fill-in, someone to pack the galleries. source

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    This question is based on a misconception and lacks appropriate background effort. – Kris Mar 21 '14 at 6:08
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    Latched onto only implies that you grabbed onto something and didn't let it go. (It's usually a negative connotation.) The only two that you have used correctly are: She latched onto his arm (She grabbed it in fear and wouldn't let go.) The media were quick to latch onto the story (They saw a story and began to report on it in an overwhelming manner.) The others are incorrect. – David M Mar 21 '14 at 11:11
  • @DavidM All of these but the second one are sourced examples, David. – Elian Mar 21 '14 at 12:34
  • The examples in the source are patently wrong!! No one says latch onto $100. I honestly don't know where they got these examples!!!!!!! Pure crap!!!!! – David M Mar 21 '14 at 12:38
  • @Kris somehow he was led astray by really shoddy dictionary work! Read the sources! Wow, I can't believe they published that crap!!! – David M Mar 21 '14 at 12:42
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No, you can't use latched onto simply for get a hold of or to obtain. Latching onto carries the connotation of sinking one's claws into, or sinking one's teeth into. For example, a pitbull might latch onto an arm (hence the joke what has four legs and an arm?)

…He latched onto that harmonica. It stirred his imagination and he used that instead of toys, like other kids would have had today, he was there playing with his harmonica and needless to say, there were some other instruments that they tried to give him two things to occupy his time. But even at that early age, he latched onto the harmonica. - NPR about DeFord Bailey

She latched onto the therapeutic community's phrase — "not taking responsibility" — and used this to blame herself for the state she was in.

1930–35 for "to attach oneself to"; from Middle English lacchen, Old English lǣccan to take hold of, catch, seize; akin to Greek lázesthai to take

  • Does "I don't know where Jane is. Let me try to latch onto her" carry the connotation of sinking one's claws/teeth into? – Elian Mar 21 '14 at 3:54
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    It's definitely more than just "let me try to find her". – Peter Shor Mar 21 '14 at 4:06
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    @NourishedGourmet - bulldogs were bred to control livestock and bring down bulls by latching onto their noses. There was a sport called bull baiting and the contest went on until the dog died or the bull came down. Baiting was also thought to enhance the flavor of meat, so was done for commerce as well as sport. while latch on isn't quite that violent today, it's usually used when someone spots an opportunity and latches onto it, won't let go. Often used pejoratively. – anongoodnurse Mar 21 '14 at 4:34
  • @Susan The thing is -- according to CD -- there apparently are at least four distinct senses to the idiomatic "latch onto/on to". The first one is "attach oneself to [someone/something]" literally or figuratively, as of a parasite latching onto a host, a predator latching onto a prey, or a gigolo latching onto a rich widow. The second one is "adopt, embrace, take up (new ideas, a religion, an ideology, etc.) as in "other trades have been quick to latch onto these methods (= get the hang of these methods and make them their own almost religiously)". – Elian Mar 21 '14 at 15:07
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    For the typewriter, you obtained it, and you brought it back (i.e., you didn't let go of it), so that's an acceptable usage. If you mean to find Jane and either bring her back or stay close to her, you could use "latch on". If you just want to find her, I wouldn't consider that an idiomatic usage of "latch on". If you look at the answers you've gotten, including the ones in the comments, all of them say "latch on" means "grab hold of and not let go" (although possibly in a metaphorical sense). I don't know why you're still confused. – Peter Shor Mar 21 '14 at 17:41
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I don't wish to supplant the accepted answer here. I just have the sense that you are still confused.

Latch onto has several commonly used senses:

1) Attach oneself to something (figuratively) and not let go:

Jim latched himself onto Jane at the party. He didn't leave her side all night.

2) Attach to (in an abstract sense) and not let go:

The media latched onto the story and didn't leave the front page for a week.
He latched onto the idea that his wife was cheating on him, and could never trust her again.

3) Attach to securely:

The lid was securely latched onto the chest.

4) Grasp mentally

Now that I've latched onto what you're saying, we can agree.

5) Grab hold of physically in a difficult to remove manner:

The the pit bull latched itself onto his leg, and it took a tranquilizer dart to get it off.

  • David, do you necessarily have to add "oneself" to "latch onto" like you wrote in two of your examples? Or can it work just as well without it? E.g. Jim latched onto Jane at the party. The pit bull latched onto his leg. – Elian Mar 21 '14 at 18:21
  • Yes. Those are perfect. – David M Mar 21 '14 at 20:10

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