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From hero to goat

Q From Warren Macnab: I was wondering about the origins of the expression from hero to goat.

A Unlike you, Mr Macnab, I’ve never wondered about its origins. That’s because until you wrote I’d never come across it. I have commented previously, writing this newsletter is educational for its author, whatever its value to its readers.

So I started my answer from a position of total ignorance, not by any means a bad jumping-off point. It became clear straightaway that from hero to goat is fairly well known in north America and means that by his actions a person has in short order shifted from success to failure, with a concomitant move from praise to blame. It’s common in sports:

Before the final twist, Mack, who led all scorers with 30 points, looked as if he’d go from hero to goat in that split second when he fouled Brown, who led Pitt with 24 points. He admitted he was guilty of the infraction.

New York Daily News, 19 Mar. 2011.

though it turns up in other fields, particularly finance:

Thain has gone from hero to goat in a matter of months, first saving Merrill Lynch by selling to Bank of America and then taking the fall when the brokerage reported a staggering $15 billion quarterly loss that forced bank executives to seek more financial help from the government.

Boston Globe, 23 Jan. 2009.

It seems clear from its history that the goat is the proverbial scapegoat, originally the animal sent into the wilderness after the Jewish chief priest had symbolically laid the sins of the people upon it. The expression may also be connected with the slightly older to get one’s goat.

Unsurprisingly, we’ve no idea who invented it. The first examples in the modern form turn up in the middle 1920s — the first one I can find was in the Baltimore Sun on 29 November 1927. All early examples are from football or basketball. A football story a year later, though not using the exact form, makes its meaning clear:

But from none of this does one gather that Mr. Wilton is one of those colorful young men whose deeds in a big game always give room for praise due a hero — or raps due the goat — after the game is over.

Logansport Press, 15 Nov. 1928.

That example makes such a play on the words hero and goat that the expression must surely have been widely known by then. This is one precursor:

There is no denying the fact that the accident made Bindley the hero and Alfred the goat.

Watch Yourself Go By, by Al G Field, 1912.

Page created 7 May 2011

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Last modified: 7 May 2011.