Why is the sometimes-used expression to urinate "take a leak" or "take a piss", instead of "give a leak" or "give a piss".

I looked it up using a search engine, and didn't find any good answers.

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    Take, have, and get are "little verbs" that don't mean anything and can be used to make a noun into a verb, if one needs to. They're idiomatic, though -- which ones varies: take a shit/piss/bath/shower/leak/dive, have breakfast/some rest/a shit/a piss/a bath/a swim/a run, get some food/some rest/a shower/a haircut/a shave. – John Lawler Mar 5 at 21:20
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    @JohnLawler Thanks. I'd be very interested if you can expand your comment into an answer. Are you saying in some contexts take, have, and get don't mean anything, and in other contexts they do? – RockPaperLizard Mar 5 at 21:42
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    Yes. Like auxiliary verbs and articles and prepositions and complementizers, there are other words that are nuts and bolts of grammar rather than meaningful lexical elements. Many of them have some meanings that can get out in certain circumstances, but much of their use is as part of a construction. – John Lawler Mar 5 at 22:06
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    Why do you think "give" would fit better? – Azor Ahai Mar 6 at 0:24
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    My interpretation has always been that it's a twist on "take a break", that "take a" is so easy to say that we just stick other words after it. – dlchambers Mar 6 at 15:19

It is because one takes an action, leak or piss denote actions, and the noun forms of these actions ended up using take instead of other available verbs.

To "leak," meaning to "make water" or piss, was first a verb. Shakespeare, Henry IV part 1:

Why, they will allow us ne'er a jordan, and then we leak in your chimney; and your chamber-lie breeds fleas like a loach.

And piss, as a verb, goes back to Middle English. Chaucer, the Parson's Tale:

An hound, whan he comth by the roser or by othere beautees, thogh he may nat pisse, yet wole he heue vp his leg and make a contenaunce to pisse.

By the 20th century, both words could also serve as nouns, denoting the action of leaking or pissing, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. At the same time, they acquired a periphrastic use in the phrase to take a leak:

(Tropic of Cancer, 1934) I stood there taking a leak.

(Heartless, 1934) There were puddles of sludge from the mud of the road, the waste water of the saloon, and any number of passing drunkards who thought to stop and take a piss on their way through.

Why take? Basically, take in this usage emphasizes the following noun. When verbs do this, they are called delexical or empty because the verb is less important than the following noun. To take a piss => to piss. To take a leak => to leak. It's not that anything is being literally taken, as with other meanings of to take, but rather that the verb introduces an action. Here is how the OED explains take as a delexical verb that emphasizes carrying out the following action:

81.a. To make, do, perform (an act, action, movement, etc.); to carry out. Often take forms with the object a phrase which is a periphrastic equivalent of the cognate verb: e.g. to take a leap is equivalent to to leap, to take a look to to look, to take one's departure to to depart, etc.

"have, v." has virtually the same entry (22). It's hard to answer why take was the verb and not, say, have. Without direct evidence (which would be very hard to come by for common periphrastic forms), I can only guess that it's an accident of use.

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    I always take the 'take' part to connote that they 'opt' to take the action. They could have held onto it, but they 'took the option', they 'opted' to let it go. – Pureferret Mar 6 at 10:01
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    @Pureferret That works, and compares well with something like "take a shot" or "take a swing." (Or, as yelled in the imperative, "TAKE THE SHOT!") – TaliesinMerlin Mar 6 at 13:38

Disclaimer: I am far from a scholar in the English language.

I had always understood usage of the word "take" in these situations to simply be a shortened version "take time out/off for", as in:

"Take time off for a vacation", "Take time out for a nap", etcetera...

Another way to think of this would be the fact that what is being inferred as taken would be "time from your day/week/life"...


We can 'take a piss' or 'have a piss'. We can 'take a leak' but 'have a leak' is not idiomatic. And we can simply 'piss' but to 'leak' suggests involuntary incontinence. Then there's 'take the piss' which means something quite different (make fun of something) or its 'piss-elegant' version 'extract the urine'.

We can do a little grammatical anaysis. 'Piss' may be a verb or a noun, but 'leak' is only a verb. We may step in a pool of piss but not a pool of leak. But I don't think there's any value in dissecting the difference between 'take' and 'have'. If we try to derive a rule, it will just be contradicted by another example.

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    I'm not really getting much from this, beyond, "*shrug* That's just how it is." – David Richerby Mar 6 at 14:55
  • Well, there's a conclusion drawn in the first part. But between 'take' and 'have', If we try to derive a rule, it will just be contradicted by another example. We can lable this as 'delexical' or 'empty' (as @TaliesinMerlin suggests) if we like. – Laurence Payne Mar 6 at 15:00
  • 'leak' is also a noun, e.g. 'he put a bucket under a leak'; it just doesn't refer to the type of matter; you can step in a sewage leak or an oil leak, but not a helium leak or a password leak. – Pete Kirkham Mar 6 at 16:57

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