You will be had it!

From a (non-linguist) correspondent, Chris Ambidge:

This [usage] dates to my hometown, Northampton [in the East Midlands of the UK], in the mid 1930’s. There was a group (probably people who patronised a local pub) outing to some distant attractions, & a coach [that is, a bus] had been chartered, leaving at some early hour. A sign was posted @ the pub (& possibly on the door): “The coach for (destination) on (date) will leave at 7:30 am SHARP. If you come late, you will be had it.” That original construction … tickled my dad considerably, and entered the family argot used for emphasis: “If you do/fail to do such-and-such, you will be had it.” It then expanded to also mean (“those flowers really will be had it”) that some item or other was past its best & due for a discard. Which really has nothing to do with tardiness &/or missing the coach. I heard myself saying that about last week’s purple gladioli, & that inspired me to send the locution to a linguist.

Nice example of semantic extension.

I’m posting this in case anyone has experience with the coach-announcement usage of the expression (the family’s extension of it is unlikely to have been duplicated elsewhere; it’s probably one of those family things. — but see below) Please don’t write just to say that you’ve never heard it before and that it sounds strange to you; I assume that’s true of almost everyone.

My current hypothesis is that will be had it is a combination of two things. The first is the colloquial idiom to have had it, glossed by OED2 as follows:

to have no chance whatever of having or doing something; to have had one’s (adverse) fate finally decided, to be defeated; to be dead, to have been killed; to be ruined, broken down, useless; to have had enough

Note the ‘broken down, useless’ sense, and recall the family’s ‘past its due’ use of will be had it. Note also that this idiom is in the perfect, marked by the auxiliary have plus a past participle (had).

That’s thing one. Thing two is a piece of well-known variation in English, the use of auxiliary be rather than have in the perfect. The usage is mostly archaic and dialectal. Here’s OED2 on the subject:

in intr. vbs., forming perfect tenses, in which use it is now largely displaced by have after the pattern of transitive verbs: be being retained only with comegorisesetfallarrivedepartgrow, and the like, when we express the condition or state now attained, rather than the action of reaching it, as ‘the sun is set,’ ‘our guests are gone,’ ‘Babylon is fallen,’ ‘the children are all grown up.’

My suggestion is that the be had it of will be had it marks the perfect, so that will be had it can be glossed ‘will have had it’ (with the ‘have no chance whatever’ sense of to have had it above). Yes, the had of to have had it is transitive, but I believe there are some dialectal occurrences of be-perfects with transitives (as well as intransitives), though I’m away from the relevant sources at the moment.

I’ll pass this posting on to colleagues who are likely to know more about the matter.

2 Responses to “You will be had it!”

  1. SDT Says:

    Is the mostly archaic and dialectical use of the auxiliary be in English historically related to the use of the auxiliary sein in German? In German sein is used mostly with intransitive verbs of motion, like kommen, gehen, and fallen, much like the English verbs listed in the OED2. According to my German grammar, sein is used with a few transitive verbs also, but haben is not one of them.

  2. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To SDT, on German and English: the short answer to your question is almost surely yes, but I don’t know the details.

    The first colleagues I appealed to haven’t responded: one is on sabbatical until January and not dealing with e-mail at all (so as to have time to pursue his research), and the other is on a (brief) vacation and not dealing with e-mail during the period. I will cast the net wider.

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