I've recently watched West Side Story and heard some weird expressions, one of which is "I was had":

Dear kindly Judge, your Honor,
My parents treat me rough.
With all their marijuana,
They won't give me a puff.
They didn't wanna have me,
But somehow I was had.
Leapin' lizards! That's why I'm so bad! 

The movie is set in the early sixties, so this may not be used anymore. It is also part of a song, so it may even be a license and never really used.

Does this sound right in today's standard English? Can "have" be used in passive constructions at all?


4 Answers 4


Oh, wow, that's a much more complex bit of word-play than it seemed in the title of the question.

The expression "was had" is an idiom that means "was cheated or tricked", and is perfectly valid English. However, that is not the meaning of "was had" in context – though it very clearly is an allusion to and playing with the "was cheated" sense. The people singing are criminals, and they're singing about their being criminals – people who cheat and trick others; their song is a list of humorous excuses for their behavior, and "I was had!" can be a kind of excuse.

The context was:

My parents [...]

didn't wanna have me,

But somehow I was had.

In another idiomatic use of "to have", such as "have me", here, means "to give birth to a child". The singer is saying "My parents didn't want a (or another) child, but somehow they wound up with me."

Using "was had" to mean "was born" this way is very unusual, but makes literal grammatical sense – and reminds the listener of the idiom "I was had" meaning "I was cheated".

The entire song is a list of the reasons the characters addressed should have mercy on the young criminals, and those reasons are all specious explanations that position the criminals as the real victims of the unfairness of life: everything bad they do is someone else's fault.

  • 5
    As I hint in my revised answer, a sentence such as I was had in 1999 by my mother cannot, for many/most/all speakers, mean I was given birth to in 1999 by my mother. If would have to mean I was cheated. May 29, 2016 at 5:34
  • 13
    @AlanCarmack Context! This answer provides provides a nice illustration of how context can override common patterns like that, for most/many/all speakers.
    – Ben Kovitz
    May 29, 2016 at 8:30
  • 1
    I was referring to the structure in general, not in this one-off usage. Anyone who read my updated answer could deduce that. May 29, 2016 at 12:43
  • 2
    @BenKovitz Context sensitivity is why making computers read and give meaning to languages like English is so difficult.
    – Pharap
    May 31, 2016 at 1:23
  • 3
    Perhaps worth noting that the "was had" idiom also occurs in the active voice; for example, "you almost had me there". May 31, 2016 at 8:51

Have is rarely used in passive constructions, even when it is used as a dynamic (versus a stative) verb.

Here are two acceptable uses:

1 A good time was had by all.

This expression (and ones based on it) is quaint, hackneyed and stale.

More germane to your question:

2 I was had by the insurance company.

Here was had means was cheated or was swindled.

See Oxford definition 2.8 and be had at the free dictionary.

Now, let's look at a particular active usage that is ungrammatical in the passive:

Had can mean gave birth (simple past). A common but somewhat informal use is

My mother had me in 1999 when she was still young.

Had here means gave birth to.

However, to use this meaning in the passive, as in

*>I was had by my mother in 1999 when she was still young.

is ungrammatical. In fact, the natural way to interpret this sentence would be to give it the meaning of to be cheated.

Which is why I originally jumped to the conclusion that was had in the lyric you ask about means to be cheated.

However, the songwriter has been clever and written a lyric that is both grammatical and ungrammatical at the same time. The grammaticality of its use as I was cheated/swindled "allows" the listener to process the ungrammatical usage as I was given birth to as making sense in the context of the singer's parenting. It's a startling usage.

If one were to distill or separate the two uses, the lyric would mean something like:

Somehow I was cheated when I was given birth to by my parents.

But again, I was had as in I was given birth to is strictly ungrammatical in normal usage.

Acknowledgement to the comment by MarkHubbard and the answer by Codeswitcher, which have allowed me to update and improve my answer...

  • 1
    In the lyrics of the song, "They didn't wanna have me / But somehow I was had" means "somehow I was born." Usually, "I was had" means "I was taken advantage of" or "I was intentionally deceived," etc. Losing one's money in a Ponzi scheme is an example of "being had." Using it to mean "gave birth to" is sometimes used as well; e.g., "My parents had me when they were in their late twenties." In this instance it is standard English. As used in the lyrics, not so much. May 28, 2016 at 20:42
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    I was had by the lyrics. May 28, 2016 at 21:15
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    @Mark Luckily there are no cities named "Hello", else we'd have to explain at least 3 possible meanings of "She had me at Hello" May 30, 2016 at 0:08
  • "Stephen Sondheim: My 'West Side Story' Lyrics Are 'Embarrassing'" abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/… May 30, 2016 at 15:15
  • @BillDubuque - Hahahaha! "Hello is situated in the region Poni in Burkina Faso." Apparently the only city in the world named "Hello." From us.geotargit.com/… May 30, 2016 at 15:25

They didn't wanna have me, but somehow I was had.

This sentence suggests that the character is the product of an accidental pregnancy. The first clause of the compound establishes the relevant sense of "to have".

The passive voice might be unusual here, but it does not fall outside of standard.

  • Really? Not outside the standard? How would you judge I was had by my mother when she was only 17? May 29, 2016 at 15:43
  • @AlanCarmack "Awkward"?
    – mattdm
    May 30, 2016 at 22:05
  • @AlanCarmack Comprehensible, but a low standard of English. Understandable for a child; showing poor education for an adult.
    – Graham
    May 31, 2016 at 9:24
  • @Graham: Just because a usage is "uncommon" doesn't mean it's "invalid". From State Department Employee Loyalty Investigation: Hearings, 1950: Do you then say that these first three children were had by you and Margaret Rogers Budenz before you were married to her? And in the specific case of the example being queried by OP here, I suggest the ability to come out with such a clever pun implies very high competence in English. Jun 10, 2021 at 13:57

To be had is an expression meaning to be taken advantage of. It's valid.

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