I recently encountered the phrase "have at you".

I know it's generally used as an exclamation, that is shouted when someone is about to attack someone else.

Wiktionary seems to agree with me:


have at you

(dated) An exclamation indicating that one is about to strike the person addressed, typically with a sword or other hand-held weapon.

 [quotations ]

-Dark and sinister man, have at thee. Barrie JM (1904), Peter Pan.

And it got me thinking....

What does the phrase actually mean? Who or what is being "had"?

Acccording to RegDwighт, As well as being used by J.M. Barrie, "Have at you" is also used in Shakespeare:

  • "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.

So where on earth did this phrase come from?

  • @RegDwighт Are the two phrases related? I suspect they probably are, but I can't find anywhere actually saying so. (btw I'm adding your list of Shakespearian quotes to the question- they're great.)
    – Urbycoz
    Jan 18 '13 at 10:48
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    I have edited the Wiktionary entry to remove the fatuous "comparative" and "superlative" which were there, and trimmed them out of the quotation above.
    – Colin Fine
    Jan 18 '13 at 17:31

Webster's 3rd New Int'l Dictionary gives it as

have at
to go at or deal with, usu. hostilely <flops the morning bale of poetry upon my desk and I pull up my chair to have at them> —H. L. Mencken

This is undoubtedly derived from the following sense of have:

10a to maneuver into a position of disadvantage or cause to be at a disadvantage.

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    Hmm can you tell us a little more about this, give an example of 10a? I think I know what you mean, as used in games? Probably related to the Dutch expression. Jan 18 '13 at 15:10
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    @Cerberus- How about: "Hey, look at this Rolex I got from a guy on the street for only $15." "Uhhmm, that's a fake. I think you've been had." Or, "You shouldn't have moved your rook, he has you now."
    – Jim
    Jan 18 '13 at 16:58

"Have at you" seems to be an elliptic formula from fencing comparable to French "En garde!". So I would assume that after "have" a noun is lacking, maybe "guard":

"Have guard at you!" (?)

I think in commented Shakespeare editions such a formula should be explained. Maybe that the use of the formula was extended to situations similar to fencing.

Romeo and Juliet, act 1, scene 1, line 60


What, drawn, and talk of peace? I hate the word,

As I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee.

Have at thee, coward!

(They fight.)

In the modern text of Sparknotes the line "Have at thee, coward!" is translated with: Let's go at it, coward!


Well, that's the meaning, but no explanation of the elliptic formula. I've done some research now, but found only explanations of the meaning. "Have at thee!" is understood as Shakespearean expression for "Let's begin the fight!". So in Urban Dictionary or genius.com. Nobody seems to see that the ellipsis in Shakespeare's formula needs an explanation. I'll keep this problem in mind.

I've just found the following Melville quote:

To the last, I grapple with thee;

From Hell's heart, I stab at thee; For hate's sake, I spit my last breath at thee.

Herman Melville


So it might be possible that "a stab" is lacking: Have a stab at thee. Not very convincing, though.

Or is it "Have my sword at thee"/Have the fight at thee"? Or: Here, have death looking at thee?

Here'a link to phrasefinder. They quote OED. The explanation is a bit lame. http://www.phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/57/messages/1037.html


Clearly this was formulaic as in the FR "en guarde", but suspect the confusion is due to an alternative meaning of "have". Could be "heft" or "heave" (no longer common) referring to the first post in a formal duel.

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    Welcome to EL&U. As this is a Q&A site, not a discussion forum, please do not post personal speculations that lack full detail or support from authoritative references. I encourage you to take the site tour and review the help center for a better understanding of StackExchange's standards and conventions.
    – choster
    Oct 20 '16 at 3:16

No one has mentioned "have a go at" as in "why are you having a go at me?" Possibly where the verb has been reinstated where sense seemed to be needed.

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    Welcome to English Language & Usage. To properly answer a question, the sources used need be shown. I would think you would want to research this matter and rewrite your answer.
    – J. Taylor
    Oct 26 '17 at 22:44

It's a corruption of 'Habet!', which means 'Has it!' or 'Has had it!'

In ancient Roman gladiatorial combat, when the winning blow was struck - possibly a fatal one - the crowd would cry, 'Habet! Hoc habet!' which means 'Had it! He's had it!'

The winning gladiator could also cry 'Habet!' as a kind of 'Gotcha!' That's what's come down to us as 'Have at you!', which is supposed to be uttered when the coup de grace is delivered.

  • An amusing theory, but unless you have some sort of substantiation or citation for it, I'd say it's not at all believable. ("Hoc habet" -> "this has", according to google translate.)
    – Hellion
    Jan 2 '14 at 21:33
  • Hi, gotgat. We appreciate your input. We also appreciate links to sources where applicable, especially in Answers. You can help us learn by providing links, even with answers in response to seemingly opinion-based questions. Thanks. :) Jan 2 '14 at 21:34
  • Hoc habet means “He has this” or “This has”. This answer doesn't seem to make much sense—and with nothing to back it up, it appears entirely made up and random. Jan 3 '14 at 0:17

Sounds to me like our modern version of "Take that!".

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    Welcome Jon. Because ELU is a question and answer site and not a discussion forum we like answers to be substantiated. Can you edit your answer and provide a link to a reference that supports your claim?
    – Jim
    Feb 10 '15 at 3:12

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