Santa Claus made a startling admission to me: the reason that Virginia O’Hanlon wrote to The Sun to find out whether Santa exists is that she first wrote to Santa himself, but he did not answer.
“Why didn’t you answer her?” I asked.
“Let me read her letter to you,” he began.
I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. I think they are wrong, and I still withhold my belief in you. Please tell me the truth, do you exist?
115 West Ninety Fifth Street’”
“In some ways,” I said, “it’s better that you didn’t respond. This gave the Editor of The Sun the opportunity to write a letter for all to see, and this letter has undoubtedly increased belief in you for more than a century. But I can see how the misuse of ‘withheld’ got on your nerves. Even Santa has his limits.”
Both Santa and I have noticed, this year in particular, that writers (and speakers) seem to replace “hold” with “withhold.” Yes, it’s true: the Oxford English Dictionary reveals that centuries ago, “withheld” could mean “to hold or adhere to.” This usage of the word, though, was last recorded in 1450. Why is it suddenly making a comeback?
I’ll be honest: I notice it the most during discussions with my students and in my students’ papers. I have a feeling (and this is just a hunch, no more than that) that some English speakers think that “withhold” sounds more formal than “hold”—and so they simply replace “hold” with “withhold”: a word that has a very different meaning. No, “withhold” does not mean “hold within,” as some English speakers seem to think. Perhaps if enough people continue to use the word in this sense, this meaning could return to common and proper usage; however, for now, “hold” it is.
Virginia certainly did not mean that she was holding back her belief in Santa. And how fortunate the world is that so many still hold this belief, rather than withholding it!