I know the word behold means to look upon. So why does beholden mean obligated, indebted?

Can someone tell me how this phrase came about?

  • Etymology From Middle English beholden, from Old English behealdan (“to hold, have, occupy, possess, guard, preserve, contain, belong, keep, observe, consider, behold, look at, gaze on, see, signify, avail, effect, take care, beware, be cautious, restrain, act, behave”), from Proto-Germanic *bihaldanan (“to hold with, keep”), equivalent to be- +‎ hold. Cognate with Dutch behouden (“to keep, restrain, preserve”), German behalten (“to keep, restrain, remember”), Danish and Norwegian beholde (“to keep”) and Swedish behålla (“to keep”). en.wiktionary.org/wiki/behold – Kris Apr 8 '13 at 5:39


" 1300–50; Middle English, adj. use of beholden, old past participle of behold"

"under obligation," mid-14c., originally pp. of behold (and preserving the original pp. of hold), but this sense is not recorded among the many and varied senses attested for behold .

  • If you are quoting something, it might be helpful to say what. Perhaps it came from here – Henry May 18 '11 at 0:36
  • @Henry: Etymonline as well. – Jon Purdy May 18 '11 at 1:57
  • As Henry. Cite the source. – Kris Apr 8 '13 at 5:37

We hold objects in our gazes, we hold others to their debts. The sense of holding is the same, though the subjects we are holding vary.

  • Opinion, maybe? – Kris Apr 8 '13 at 5:37

The OED says for "behold":


a. trans. To hold by, keep hold of, retain. Obs.


†2. trans. To hold by some tie of duty or obligation, to retain as a client or person in duty bound. Found only in the pa. pple. BEHOLDEN adj., q.v.

(and other meanings, of course).

It gives examples of the first up to 1525, and no examples of the second.

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