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Get one’s goat

Q From Selinda Chiquoine: My new puppy has really gotten my goat, and I was wondering how the heck that phrase came to be?

A In 1927, a writer in the Brazil Times — not the country, but the place in Indiana — commented this was “one of the most absurd slang phrases in the English language”. It’s hard to disagree, though plenty of candidates for the accolade come to mind. Even worse, nobody has much of a clue where it comes from.

Our usual meaning is that somebody has goaded or teased another into signs of irritation or has — accidentally or deliberately — exasperated or annoyed them.

It has recently attracted attention from several language researchers. So far, we’ve been able to establish that it’s definitely American and that it had entered the language in the vocabulary of boxing by 1905:

I think the crowd got his goat, or the idea of fighting — one or the other — because he did not say boo and sat down like a mope.

Washington Times, 18 Nov. 1905.

The idiom became very popular in the US and by 1914 had been taken to Canada, Britain, Australia and other countries.

The most frequent story that attempts to explain it relates to horse racing in North America and to the common practice of putting an animal in a horse’s stall to befriend and calm it. The story says that a goat was the most common companion and that enterprising villains capitalised on the association by gambling on the horse to lose and then stealing the goat. A substantial ability to suspend one’s disbelief is needed to accept this at face value.

Other people have tried to identify it in some way with scapegoat, have seen it as a variant form of goad, and have linked it with an old French phrase prendre la chèvre (to take the goat). It has been claimed that at one time some residents of Harlem in New York kept goats and thereby annoyed their neighbours, an explanation that fails to satisfy. Another links it with the late nineteenth-century fashion for men to sport goatee beards, which children mocked with bleating noises. Another suggestion comes from a book of 1904 entitled Life in Sing Sing, in which goat is glossed as meaning anger. But evidence is lacking for all of them. The writer in the Brazil Times tried another tack:

The origin of this phrase is essentially the same as that of the verb “to kid” and the other form “kidding.” A goat frolicking about is an absurd sight. “Don’t play the giddy goat” is an old expression for “Don’t make a silly fool of yourself.” “To kid” is “to make a fool of,” since kids are really more foolish acting creatures than their parents, the goats. When one is eminently successful in kidding another he is said to “get his goat.”

This is a sensible suggestion but once again there’s no evidence.

However — at the risk of being responsible for starting a new spurious tale about its origins — one other strange usage exists. While looking for get my goat, I repeatedly encountered the same notionally humorous story. This is its earliest appearance I can find:

Mr. and Mrs. Jones were starting for Church. “Wait dear,” said the lady, “I’ve forgotten something; won’t you go up and get my goats off the bureau?” “Your goats,” replied Jones, “what new fangled thing’s that?” “I’ll show you, remarked the wife, and she sailed up stairs and down again with a pair of kids [kid gloves] on her hands; ‘‘there they are,” said she. “Why I call those things kids,” said the surprised husband. “Oh, do you!” snapped the wife. “Well so did I once, but they are so old now, I’m ashamed to call them anything but goats.” Then they went on to church and smiled sweetly on their friends, and put a nickel in the missionary box, and the next day Jones’ wife had a half dozen pairs of new gloves in a handsome lacquered box of the latest design.

Steubenville Weekly Herald (Steubenville, Ohio), 26 Mar. 1880.

You may groan at the weakness of the joke, but it must have been a thigh-slapping, rib-tickling wonder of the times to judge by how often it was repeated. I counted 48 examples between 1880 and 1900 in American newspapers; it crossed the Atlantic within a year and at least a dozen versions appeared in British newspapers in the following two decades; it was almost immediately taken to Australia, where at least 38 versions were published between 1884 and 1904 (at this point I stopped counting).

I’m not suggesting it’s the direct origin of the expression, but the phrase get my goats must have been put into the minds of a lot of people through repetitions of the joke. This might have been combined with some slang usage of goat — perhaps a play on kid — to make the idiom we now have.

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Page created 26 Jun 1999; Last updated 03 Dec 2014