get one's goat (1906)

Ben Zimmer bgzimmer at GMAIL.COM
Fri Oct 3 16:38:16 UTC 2014

The mysterious origins of "get one's goat" came up on Twitter
recently. HDAS and GDoS both start with "goat" glossed as "anger" in
_Life in Sing Sing_ (1904) and have cites for the full phrase starting
in 1908. I was able to find a few cites from 1906 in the Genealogy
Bank archive.

1906 June 2 _Jersey Journal_ 3/3 (head & text) Colored Man "Got His
Goat." But There Was a Real Goat in It, Too, and Carmody Butted Into
Trouble. "Judge, he got my goat," said William Carmody, 23 years old,
of 302 Second Street, Hoboken, when arraigned before Judge Higgins in
the First Criminal Court on a charge of atrocious assault and battery,
preferred by John Bailey, colored, of 276 Eleventh Street.

1906 Sept 7  _Daily People_ (New York, NY) 2/3 Something or other I
said in my criticism of Raiser's letter of the 14th instant must have
"got his goat."

1906 Nov 23 _Wilkes-Barre (Penn.) Times_ 7/1 "Step on the old man's
feet," said the Kid [sc. Kid McCoy to Jack O'Brien]. "His feet are in
the cornfield, and you will get his goat more by keeping on top of
them all the time than by stabbing him in the food chopper."

The first cite above is about a case involving an actual goat, but the
headline indicates that readers would appreciate the double entendre.
The same is true of this later cite, also from the Jersey Journal:

1907 Dec 14 _Jersey Journal_ 3/3 It is easy to "get the goat" of the
police of the Second Precinct now, for locked up in a cell at the
Seventh Street police station is a "Nannie" that was arrested by
Roundsman Sniffen for her obstreperous conduct in Jersey Avenue

The 11/23/06 cite suggests the expression was in common use in the
boxing world. See also the boxing-related treatment of the phrase in
Richard Barry's "The Prize Ring" (Pearson's Magazine, July 1910):

Here is Barry's explanation of the origin:

"Originally this phrase was racing slang. To keep a racehorse from
going stale a trainer frequently quarters with him a goat, for the pet
relieves the thoroughbred of his loneliness. But intriguers have found
that by stealing a goat from a horse a day or two before a great race
he can be thrown out of condition. The loss of his favorite companion
annoys the horse and he goes into the big event in a highly feminized
state of nerves. So, to 'get his goat' is to remove his confidence."

Like Michael Quinion, I find the horse-racing story rather dubious,
but it's notable that this explanation was given quite early on.

If I had to guess, I'd say "goat" developed as an alteration of "goad"
(note that _Life in Sing Sing_ glosses "goat" not just as "anger" but
"to exasperate") -- for comic effect, or maybe as a kind of prison


Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society -

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