get one's goat (1906)

Benjamin Barrett gogaku at IX.NETCOM.COM
Fri Oct 3 20:24:43 UTC 2014

I thought that the deception of Jacob with the goat-skin might have been behind this, but I cannot see any evidence for it on Google. Another possibility is the goat that was eaten by a thief and then proclaimed Patrick to be a saint. The earliest I see for that is 1809 (, but tying that to the idiom seems more of a reach than the Genesis story.

Perhaps more likely is the Norwegian "The Youth and the North Wind," in which the protagonist obtains a magic goat that is then switched out by a rogue. The protagonist tries to show off his magic goat, but of course the goat he then has is just the ordinary sort. The earliest I see this is 1865 (, p. 134). It was written or translated by John Godfrey Saxe ( who lived form 1816 to 1887. His transmission of the "Hindoo" "Blind Men and the Elephant" is still well told in the English-speaking world, so it is not unlikely that something like his goat story also became popular. 

It's a little difficult to tie the tale to the meaning of the idiom, but no more so than the racing horse origin. 

I have a problem also with deriving this from the eggcorn "goad" because I can't imagine people saying "got my goad." (There are a handful of hits for that expression on Google and Google Books but only in this century or a little before.)

Benjamin Barrett
Formerly of Seattle, WA

Learn Ainu!

On Oct 3, 2014, at 9:38 AM, Ben Zimmer <bgzimmer at GMAIL.COM> wrote:

> 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
> yesterday.
> 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
> code.

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