Take / Have a Bath

Claire Anderson

Silent film actress Claire Anderson.

Differences between American and British English constitute a set of near-cliched contrasts (‘we say elevator, while you say lift!’). I would add to this list the ‘have a bath/take a bath‘ distinction: the British ‘have‘ a bath, while we Americans ‘take‘ one. A hackneyed metaphor for American assertiveness and British passivity is lurking in there somewhere.

‘Have’ and ‘take’ are examples of ‘delexical verbs,‘ which create an ‘implied’ verb suggested by the noun. Rather than saying ‘she bathed,’ we opt for ‘have/take a bath.’   Also ‘take a nap,’ ‘have a rest,’ or ‘take a vacation,’ which substitute for the verbs ‘nap,’ ‘rest’ and, uh, ‘vacate.’

To be fair, I can’t say if ‘take a bath’ is completely verboten in British English. But it’s striking how rarely Americans use ‘have.’ Many of my country(wo)men may object, ‘I can totally see myself saying have a bath.’ Yet Brigham Young University’s Corpus of Contemporary American English yields a mere two spoken occurences of this type, both in British contexts (one an interview with English actor Jeremy Northam).

Of course, Americans frequently use delexical ‘have.’ Note ‘have a party,’ ‘have a meeting,’ ‘have a soiree,’ ‘have a rendevous,’ ‘have a shindig.’ For reasons that are unclear, many of these seem related to socializing. So Americans say ‘have a shower’ if they are talking about a wedding shower, but (usually) don’t say ‘have a shower’ when referring to getting clean. Not sure if this constitutes a pattern, but it’s a striking trend.

But what is the pattern, anyway? What’s especially confusing are the various situations where both ‘take’ and ‘have’ can apply to a verb. Why can Americans ‘have a meeting’ or ‘take a meeting*’, but not ‘take a party?’ Why can we both ‘have a drink’ and ‘take a drink’ (the latter usually in the context of ordering said drink), but not ‘take a meal.’ And why do we invariably say we are ‘taking a trip,’ yet bid au revoir with the obligatory ‘have a nice trip?’

*Less common, but found in Hollywood-ish phrases like ‘I hear Spielberg took a meeting with Tom Cruise.’

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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16 Responses to Take / Have a Bath

  1. dw says:

    More Britticisms: “have a look”, “have a go” (i.e. try to do something).

    My BS philosophizing: AmE uses “take” in contexts that emphasize individualism.

    • I think “have a go” is possible in American English, but more common are “take a whack” or “give it my best shot.” Both rather violent, when you think about it!

  2. Amy Stoller says:

    I remember a time when “take a meeting” was big in Hollywood, though nowhere else that I can think of. I haven’t heard that one for a while, now that I think about it. Maybe it’s passé.

    • I think it’s part of that class of Hollywood terms that became cliched very quickly. I’d also cite the curious, masculinized ‘baby:’ imagine a stereotypical agent picking up the phone with, ‘Keanu! Baby! Loved your last picture!’

  3. Tom says:

    As far as I can see, Americans use “have” only when it’s in reference to something being staged or planned as opposed to just routine behavior.

    I think “take a meeting” is used in the context of attending someone else’s planned meeting, rather than setting one up. But still, pretty Hollywood! Corporate, too.

  4. Eugene says:

    To check my intuition about this, I looked at a list of collocations for ESL learners. I guess the website represents British English, but the majority of the examples would be the same in my (North Central) North American Dialect.
    http://www.englishclub.com/vocabulary/collocations-lists.htm
    It seems to me that ‘take’ is a little more about the action while ‘have’ is a little more about the experience. Naturally there would be some overlap, but I think this generalization gets at the distinction between ‘take a trip’ and ‘have a nice trip.’

    • Nice list! It mentions another example I hadn’t considered: we can ‘take lunch’ (meaning ‘taking a break for lunch’) and ‘have lunch’ (meaning the act of eating lunch).

  5. maafus says:

    this is a great way to learn english.

  6. lynneguist says:

    I’d call those ‘light verbs’. In fact, I did when I wrote a post on this very topic! http://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.co.uk/2007/10/some-light-verbs-take-vs-make.html ;)

    • I have to admit, I ran a search on your blog about this topic before writing about; alas, ‘take’ is a bit too broad to be useful as a search term!

      I like the ring of ‘light verbs,’ which is appropriately vague for this very vague category of words. I find it strange to refer to a word as ‘delexical.’

  7. In a recent post on this very topic (Baths and Showers: “Taking” or “Having”) I found that using a comparison of the COCA and BNC frequencies for “take” and “have” shows 91% of Americans “taking” and 80% of Brits “having.” It looks like the Brits are a little more flexible and will “take” more than the Yanks will “have,” but now I’ve lived in the US for close to 20 years, I have to admit that I’m not a likely to take as bath as have one. Clearly I’ve gone native…

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  9. Spudd86 says:

    Interestingly to me, I’m Canadian (Southern Ontario) and I mostly say ‘have a bath/shower’ rather than take.

  10. arthur says:

    To “take” something suggests that you are going to remove it from one place to another,
    hence the statement “Take a bath” is bloody stupid and whoever coined the term obviously weren’t speaking right English mate.

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