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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, 2010 at 14:17

3 Answers 3

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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, 2011 at 1:26
  • @Wayne: Yeah, it does have that sort of cynicism to it.
    – Jon Purdy
    May 25, 2011 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? Mar 12, 2012 at 20:25
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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, 2010 at 1:04
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The OED dates "have at" to the 14th century:

V 27 b. intransitive. With at. To go at, esp. aggressively or forcefully; to tackle or attack; (also) to make an attempt at, ‘have a go at’. In early use chiefly in imperative, frequently with first-person meaning: ‘let me at (you, it, etc.)’, ‘here goes’ (now archaic). Formerly also with other prepositions (and adverbs), as †after, †among.

c1400 (▸?c1390) Sir Gawain & Green Knight (1940) l. 2288 ‘Haf at þe þenne,’ quoþ þat oþer. [trans "Have at thee then," said the other one.]

1639 T. Fuller Hist. Holy Warre iii. xi. 128 He wintered in Askelon, intending next spring to have at Jerusalem.

1916 J. Galsworthy Sheaf 298 One would not admit a physical defeat, but clench the teeth and have at it again.

2009 New Yorker 2 Feb. 50/3 After the tabloids and the upstate papers had at her, she attended another friend's birthday party.

What does its meaning break down to?

The "at" was probably

OED

  1. At a person (Latin apud):

†a. In personal contact with; in the immediate presence or company of. Obsolete (repl. by with, by, beside, in presence of, before).

c1275 (▸?a1200) Laȝamon Brut (Calig.) (1978) l. 12621 We woren..at [c1300 Otho mid] Arðure þan kinge. [We were with Arthur the king.]

The idea could be that the threated blow, etc., would be in contact with the person threatened.

Also, when should it be used best?

Some time prior to 1900. It is now archaic.

NB, have at is not a shortening of "have a go at", which is a much later (late 18th c.) construction.

P1. Chiefly colloquial. to have a go.

a.(a) Chiefly with at. To aim a blow or shot at someone or something; to make an attack or onslaught upon someone or something.

1792 Lady's Mag. May 244/1 I felt such a flow of spirits and courage, that I hid myself behind a tree, determined to have a go at him—the moment he passed me, I fired my pistol.

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