get one's goat (1906)

Bonnie Taylor-Blake b.taylorblake at GMAIL.COM
Sat Oct 4 00:13:48 UTC 2014

On Fri, Oct 3, 2014 at 6:10 PM, Douglas G. Wilson <douglas at> wrote:

> I presented my notion and reviewed a few examples here in 2005:

There, Doug had written:

"My current speculation is that the original reference was to a (metaphoric)
mascot (in the old sense of good-luck charm, the opposite of jinx or
hoodoo). Many sports teams apparently had goat mascots. The story about
race-horses having goat companions is apparently true. However, I do not
find any single instance of "getting/stealing/losing [a horse's] goat";
it's always a human being's goat. I speculate that the race-horse's goat
was a mascot kept out of superstition (whether or not the horse became
attached to it), and I doubt that the specifically horse-related goat was
the etymological ancestor of this metaphor ... merely a cousin."

So, this -- as are other contributions in this series of messages --
is fascinating and, consequently, here's more than you ever wanted to
know about British superstitions involving goats (there's not much).
Steve Roud's The Penguin Guide to Superstitions of Britain and Ireland
(2003) shares several goat-involving folk beliefs (pp. 215-216) ,

"A strip of sheep or goatskin suspended from the collar of a horse
will avert the evil eye." -- Lincolnshire, Rudkin (1936).

But Roud also mentions that "a widespread custom found among farmers
in Britain and Ireland was to keep goats among their cattle because,
it was believed, the cows benefited in various ways from their
presence" and he provides these examples.

1. "It is still a generally received opinion, that one of these
animals kept about an inn or farmstead is not only conducive to the
health of other domestic animals, but also brings good luck to the
owner." -- Northern England [1850s], Denham Tracts.

2. "The practice of keeping a goat among a heard of cows to prevent
abortion is by no means confined to Leicestershire.  It must be a
Billy goat, and the more it stinks the better.  How the charm works
nobody knows.  Since I introduced a he-goat among my shorthorns,
abortions have ceased.  Previously it was very troublesome." --
Gloucestershire N&Q (1910).

3. "The custom of keeping a goat with a herd of cattle as been
prevalent in North-West Durham for the past forty years to my
knowledge.  What the reason or effect was, or is, I cannot say, but
one farmer in Satley parish, whose farm was the haunt of adders,
always kept a Billy-goat on it, while he lived there, to go with his
cattle and sheep, for he believed the goat killed and ate the
reptiles, and so prevented them from doing any damage to his stock by
'stinging' them.  I used to doubt the killing and eating part of the
business, until one day I saw Mr. Goat kill and adder by jumping on it
and mangling it, and then bite it to pieces." -- Co. Durham N&Q

4. "[I]n the 1920s when my parents proposed keeping a milk-goat, the
farm manager protested strenuously that if this were done everyone
would think that our pedigree Highland herd (not used for milk) was
suffering from tuberculosis and that the goat had been brought in to
cure them.  In deference to his feelings the idea was given up." --
Argyll, Scottish Studies (1965).

5.  Roud notes that "[g]oats were believed to have had a similarly
beneficial effect on horses, and were regularly kept in stables."  He
provides a ca. 1840 example of this belief:  "Some may think it all a
fable, When I say that in the stable I'm a doctor, and my scent does
many maladies prevent."

Roud notes, with some frustration, that documentation for using goats
in this manner can't be pushed back further than the 1840s.

Not sure the above helps that much, but at least this gives me an
opportunity to recommend Roud's book.

I suppose someone's already gone looking in 19th-century small, local
British/Irish newspapers and hasn't unearthed an early "get one's
goat" or similar there.  Shame.

-- Bonnie

The American Dialect Society -

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