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Couldn't find its etymology... anyone knows?
What does its meaning break down to?
Also, when should it be used best?

Thanks.

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I don't recognise this as an expression. –  Colin Fine Dec 21 '10 at 14:17

3 Answers 3

up vote 5 down vote accepted

In modern usage, to have at is to attempt, to go ahead, or to attack physically. I suspect it comes from a shortening of the phrase have a go (at), which is used in the very same situations. Have at it means try (to do) it, have at thee! announces an attack in Shakespearian English, and he had at her with a knife means he attacked her with it.

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The situation I think of in conjunction with this phrase is someone who tries to do something, say unscrew the lid of a jar of some kind, with all of their might and fails. Another person steps up and says, "can I try it?", to which the reply is "Sure, have at it." The connotation being that the speaker thinks it's impossible to succeed, but still gives their permission to try. –  Wayne May 25 '11 at 1:26
    
@Wayne: Yeah, it does have that sort of cynicism to it. –  Jon Purdy May 25 '11 at 2:11
    
I agree. It seems to also flip again if used with "we/us", i.e. ok's here our tasks, lets have at it shall we? –  Michael Durrant Mar 12 '12 at 20:25

Straitdope's forum suggests

The phrase "have at avail" means to have at an advantage and the earliest citation is to Malory (Le Morte D'Arthur) in the phrase* "Him thought no worship to have a knight at such avail, . . ."

Apparently "have at you" (or similar) appears in several Shakespeare plays in the sense of: let battle commence.

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6  
Just for the record: "Have at you now!" — Hamlet ◆ "Have at you with a proverb [...] Have at you with another;" — Comedy of Errors ◆ "Have at you!" — Henry VIII ◆ "Have at you, then, affection's men at arms." — Love's Labour's Lost ◆ "Then have at you with my wit!" — Romeo and Juliet ◆ "since you have begun, / Have at you for a bitter jest or two." — Taming of the Shrew ◆ "Come, both you cogging Greeks; have at you both!" — Troilus and Cressida. –  RegDwigнt Dec 21 '10 at 1:04

"Have at it" is short for "Have a go at it."

The structure may be derived from a similar expression in Swedish, "Att gaa paa."

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