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From Late Middle English apprehenden (to grasp, take hold of; to comprehend; to learn),[1] from Old French apprehender (modern French appréhender (to apprehend; to catch; to dread)), from Latin apprehendere, adprehendere, the present active infinitive of apprehendō, adprehendō (to grab, grasp, seize, take; to apprehend, arrest; to comprehend, understand; to embrace, include; to take possession of, obtain, secure), from ap-, ad- (prefix meaning ‘to’) + prehendō (to grab, grasp, seize, snatch, take; to accost; to catch in the act, take by surprise; (figuratively, rare) of the mind: to apprehend, comprehend, grasp) (ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *gʰed- (to hold, seize, take; to find)).[2]



apprehend (third-person singular simple present apprehends, present participle apprehending, simple past and past participle apprehended) (transitive)

  1. (transitive)
    1. To be or become aware of (something); to perceive.
      • 1651, Thomas Hobbes, “Of the Signification of Spirit, Angel, and Inspiration in the Books of Holy Scripture”, in Leviathan, or The Matter, Forme, & Power of a Common-wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civill, London: [] [William Wilson] for Andrew Crooke, [], OCLC 895063360, third part (Of a Christian Common-wealth), page 212:
        [] Angel ſignifieth there, nothing but God himſelf, that cauſed Agar ſupernaturally to apprehend a voice from heaven; or rather, nothing elſe but a Voice ſupernaturall, teſtifying Gods ſpeciall preſence there.
      • 1719 April 25, [Daniel Defoe], The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, [], 3rd edition, London: [] W[illiam] Taylor [], published 1719, OCLC 838630407, page 70:
        [A]s to the barrel [of gunpowder] that had been wet, I did not apprehend any Danger from that; ſo I plac'd it in my new Cave, which in my Fancy I call'd my Kitchin, and the reſt I hid up and down in Holes among the Rocks, ſo that no wet might come to it, marking very carefully where I laid it.
      • 1832, Charles Simeon, “[2 Kings.] The Hypocrisy of Gehazi.”, in Horæ Homilecticæ: Or Discourses (Principally in the Form of Skeletons) Now First Digested into One Continued Series, and Forming a Commentary upon Every Book of the Old and New Testament; [], volume III (Judges to Second Book of Kings), London: Holdsworth and Ball, [], OCLC 58895812, page 500:
        From thy composure on the occasion it was evident, that thou expectedst to reap the fruit of thine iniquity in peace; and that, when thou repliedst, "All is well," thou apprehendedst no evil. But didst thou forget that God saw thee?
    2. To acknowledge the existence of (something); to recognize.
    3. To take hold of (something) with understanding; to conceive (something) in the mind; to become cognizant of; to understand.
      Synonyms: catch, get
      • 1569, [Reginald] Pole, chapter IIII, in [Thomas Copley?], transl., A Treatie of Iustification. [], Leuven: [] Ioannem Foulerum, OCLC 55579710, 2nd book (Declaring the Second Danger), folio 41:
        If to apprehend Chriſte be vnderſtanded, to dvvell in Chriſte, and to haue him dvvell in vs, it is not true that Chriſte is apprehended in that ſorte, by onely faith vvithout charitie. [] He apprehendeth Chriſte truely, that cleaueth vnto Chriſt, and the glue vvhereby the ſovvle is fastned vnto Chriſte, ſaith S. Auguſtine, is charitie: []
      • 1639, Thomas Fuller, “The Fatall Jealousies betwixt the King and Reimund Earl of Tripoli”, in The Historie of the Holy Warre, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire: [] Thomas Buck, one of the printers to the Universitie of Cambridge [and sold by John Williams, London], OCLC 913016526, book II, page 100:
        This ſuſpicion of Earl Reimund, though at firſt but a buzze, ſoon got a ſting in the Kings head, and he violently apprehended it.
      • 1674, [Richard Allestree], “Of Boasting”, in The Government of the Tongue. [], Oxford, Oxfordshire: At the Theater, OCLC 1204546880, page 168:
        We ſee in all things how deſuetude do's contract and narrow our faculties, ſo that we may apprehend only thoſe things wherein we are converſant.
      • 1684, John Bunyan, “ A Holy Life the Beauty of Christianity: Or, An Exhortation to Christians to be Holy”, in Henry Stebbing, editor, The Entire Works of John Bunyan, [], volume III, London: James S[prent] Virtue, [], published 1862, OCLC 752741467, page 305, column 2:
        There are three things in faith that directly tend to make a man depart from iniquity. (1.) It apprehendeth the truth of the being, and greatness of God, and so it aweth the spirit of a man. (2.) It apprehendeth the love of this God in Christ, and so it conquereth and overcometh the spirit of a man. (3.) It apprehendeth the sweetness and blessedness of the nature of the godhead, and thence persuadeth the soul to desire here communion with him, that it may be holy, and the enjoyment of him when this world is ended, that it may be happy in and by him for ever.
      • 1922, Carl Becker, “The Literary Qualities of the Declaration”, in The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas, New York, N.Y.: Harcourt, Brace and Company, OCLC 1243028933, page 221:
        [Thomas] Jefferson apprehended the injustice of slavery; but one is inclined to ask how deeply he felt it.
    4. To have a conception of (something); to consider, to regard.
      Synonyms: believe, gather, reckon
    5. To anticipate (something, usually unpleasant); especially, to anticipate (something) with anxiety, dread, or fear; to dread, to fear.
    6. (archaic or obsolete, also figuratively) To seize or take (something); to take hold of.
      Synonym: catch
      • 1607, Edward Topsell, “Of the Dogge”, in The Historie of Fovre-footed Beastes. [], London: [] William Iaggard, OCLC 912897215, page 156:
        Nicias a certaine hunter going abroad in the woods, chaunced to fall into a heape of burning coales, hauing no helpe about him but his dogs, there he periſhed, yet they ranne to the high waies and ceaſed not with barking and apprehending the garments of paſſengers, to ſhew vnto them ſome direfull euent: and at laſt one of the trauailers followed the dogs, and came to the place where they ſaw the man conſumed, and by that coniectured the whole ſtory.
      • 1651, Jer[emy] Taylor, “Of Christian Sobriety”, in The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living. [], 2nd edition, London: [] Francis Ashe [], OCLC 1203220866, section VI (Of Contentedness in All Estates and Accidents), page 134:
        When any thing happens to our diſpleaſure, let us endeavour to take of its trouble by turning it into ſpiritual or artificial advantage, and handle it on that ſide, in which it may be uſeful to the deſignes of reaſon. For there is nothing but hath a double handle, or at leaſt we have two hands to apprehend it.
    7. (law enforcement) To seize or take (a person) by legal process; to arrest.
      Synonyms: capture, detain
      Officers apprehended the suspect two streets away from the bank.
    8. (obsolete)
      1. To feel (something) emotionally.
      2. To learn (something).
      3. (also figuratively) To take possession of (something); to seize.
  2. (intransitive)
    1. To be of opinion, believe, or think; to suppose.
      • 1614 November 10 (first performance; Gregorian calendar), Beniamin Iohnson [i.e., Ben Jonson], Bartholmevv Fayre: A Comedie, [], London: [] I[ohn] B[eale] for Robert Allot, [], published 1631, OCLC 869654321, Act I, scene iiii, page 8:
        Sir, if you haue a minde to mocke him, mocke him ſoftly, and looke to'ther way: for if hee apprehend you flout him, once, he will flie at you preſently. A terrible teſtie old fellow, and his name is Waſpe too.
      • 1748, [Samuel Richardson], “Letter LXXI. Mr. Hickman, to Miss Clarisa Harlowe. [Sent to Wilson’s by a Particular Hand.]”, in Clarissa. Or, The History of a Young Lady: [], volume III, London: [] S[amuel] Richardson; [], OCLC 13631815, page 342:
        And ſince thou relieſt more on thy own precaution than upon my honour; be it unto thee as thou apprehendeſt, fair one!
    2. To understand.
    3. To be apprehensive; to fear.

Usage notes[edit]

The words apprehend and comprehend both describe acts of the mind. However, while apprehend denotes grasping something mentally so as to understand it clearly, at least in part, comprehend denotes understanding something entirely. We may, thus, apprehend many ideas without comprehending them. For example, the very idea of God supposes that he may be apprehended, though not comprehended, by rational beings. In The Study of Words (1851), Richard Chenevix Trench explained the difference thus: “[…] I read Hamlet, or King Lear: here I ‘apprehend’ much; I have wondrous glimpses of the poet’s intention and aim; but I do not for an instant suppose that I have ‘comprehended,’ taken in, that is, all that was in his mind in the writing”.[3]


Derived terms[edit]

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  1. ^ apprehenden, n.”, in MED Online, Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan, 2007.
  2. ^ Compare “apprehend, v.”, in OED Online Paid subscription required, Oxford, Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, September 2021; “apprehend, v.”, in Lexico,; Oxford University Press, 2019–present.
  3. ^ Richard Chenevix Trench (1851), “Lecture IV. On the Distinction of Words.”, in On the Study of Words: Five Lectures Addressed to the Pupils at the Diocesan Training School, Winchester, London: John W[illiam] Parker and Son, [], OCLC 156094813, page 111.

Further reading[edit]