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There's a low-frequency use of "obtain" that's intransitive, and means something like "occur" or "hold true."

Merriam Webster says:

intransitive verb

1: to be generally recognized or established : PREVAIL

This usage is pretty common in academic writing, especially science writing:

However, this sense is used so rarely in everyday speech that I didn't know it existed until adulthood, and trying to use it outside of academic writing usually just results in listeners thinking you've made an error (not that I'm speaking from personal experience or anything).

Is one of these the original meaning? How did the other one come about? And how did the intransitive version end up nearly exclusive to academic writing?

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  • 2
    I don’t really understand why this got closed. Looks like a fine sociolinguistic question to me.
    – Keelan
    Oct 8, 2021 at 6:19
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    I agree. It would probably get better response at English SE, but it's not off-topic here either.
    – Nardog
    Oct 8, 2021 at 7:18
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    It's about the different meanings of a particular English word - one is quite rare, and mostly used in academic contexts. That's a sociolinguistic question???
    – Colin Fine
    Oct 8, 2021 at 17:50
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    How different meanings of a word become entrenched in different communities / registers is indeed a sociolinguistic question.
    – Keelan
    Oct 8, 2021 at 19:48

1 Answer 1

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The English word “obtain” derives from the Latin verb obtineo, directly or via French obtenir. In Latin it is usually transitive (“to hold, maintain, acquire”), but it can also be intransitive (“to maintain itself; to hold, prevail, last, stand, continue” according to the Lewis/Short Latin dictionary). English borrowed it in both meanings in the early New English period, but it has remained a formal word, in the transitive meaning as a fancy variant of “get”; the intransitive meaning, rare already in Latin, is even more formal in English. So it is not that the word changed its meaning in English; it is that the rarer meaning of the Latin word caught on only in a very small sphere.

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