Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

"Getting One's Goat": Can You Help Solve the Mystery?

In the latest installment of the Slate podcast "Lexicon Valley," I presented the hosts Mike Vuolo and Bob Garfield with a bit of a mystery. Where did the expression "get one's goat" come from? Theories abound, but hard evidence of the phrase's early use has only recently come to light.

I can thank Christopher Mims, technology columnist for the Wall Street Journal, for setting me down the road of deciphering the origins of "get one's goat," meaning "to irritate someone." This is the tweet that got me going:

First I checked some reliable sources, both online (Michael Quinion's World Wide Words, Patricia T. O'Conner and Stewart Kellerman's Grammarphobia blog) and in print (Jonathan Lighter's Historical Dictionary of Slang, Jonathon Green's Green's Dictionary of Slang) but was disappointed to find that the origin was so uncertain, considering it's well-known American slang that is only about a century old.

All of the sources start with a 1904 book called Life in Sing Sing, a prison memoir by the anonymous convict "Number 1500." In the chapter on "Slang Among Convicts," the word goat is glossed as "anger; to exasperate," but that doesn't get us very far in figuring out the full phrase "get one's goat," which the slang dictionaries record from 1908 onwards.

In my preliminary digging, I was able to push that date back to 1906, based on articles I found in digitized newspaper databases, including in Jersey City, N.J.'s own Jersey Journal.

Jersey Journal, June 2, 1906, p. 3
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.

Jersey Journal, Dec. 14, 1907, p. 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.

As I currently live in Jersey City, I was fascinated to read stories involving actual goats walking around town (and in nearby Hoboken). After automobiles took over the streets, goats no longer figured in urban life. But back then, goats were prominent enough that the "get one's goat" expression could be played for laughs, relying on people's knowledge of actual goats as well as the then-new idiom.

It's curious, though, that the Jersey Journal didn't feel the need to explain what "get one's goat" meant: the reader was expected to know both the literal and figurative meanings. I presented my findings to the American Dialect Society mailing list (ADS-L) to see what other word sleuths could find. One point made by Douglas Wilson was that in the early days, you could also "lose your goat," meaning that you lose your composure. Again from the Jersey Journal:

Jersey Journal, Mar. 21, 1906, p. 2
Joseph Dunn, 24 years old, of 88 Beacon Avenue, lost "his goat" yesterday when small boys with hard snowballs used him for a target.

Other participants in the discussion kept pushing the date of earliest use further and further back. Stephen Goranson discovered what is currently the earliest known example, from an article in the Oct. 21, 1905 edition of the New York journal Public Opinion. It was part of a series by Elizabeth Howard Westwood called "Experience of a Shop Girl," and in the installment "In the Working Girl's Home," a girl named Alice Bailey reacts testily to a fellow boarder's complaint about her table manners: "'Well, that gets my goat,' gasped Alice when we recovered speech. 'The nerve of her.'"

The ADS-L discussion ended up inspiring Peter Reitan, who writes under the nom de blog Peter Jensen Brown. As it turns out, he had been collecting his own evidence for the origins of "get one's goat." On his Early Sports and Pop Culture History Blog, Peter lays out a compelling case, based on his extensive research, that we owe the expression to boxers in the U.S. Navy. He ties this to the Navy tradition of keeping goats aboard ships as mascots, and the historical evidence seems to support his theory.

But other theories have flourished, even in the early days of the expression. After "get one's goat" crept into the professional boxing world (very possibly from boxers with a Navy background), one sportswriter offered an explanation derived from horse-racing:

Richard Barry, "The Prize Ring," Pearson's Magazine, July 1910, p. 6
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.

The horse-racing theory has been repeated elsewhere, and though it's true that goats were kept in stables to calm down thoroughbreds, I find this explanation rather dubious. If it really did come from horse-racing circles, we'd expect some of the early examples to be in articles about racing. Instead, the newspaper attestations are clustered around boxing and then eventually other sports like baseball.

But the research is still ongoing. On the Lexicon Valley podcast, Mike Vuolo challenges the listeners to make their own contributions to this collaborative enterprise and try to push the date of the expression back even earlier than Oct. 21, 1905. If you can find your own "antedating," you may end up casting light on an idiom that is still tantalizingly enigmatic in its origins.

If you do turn up any early appearances of "get one's goat," let us know in the comments below or email lexiconvalley@slate.com. Finally, let me leave you with some lyrics from the song "Somebody's Got My Goat," published in the year 1908, when the expression hit the big time.

Somebody's got my goat
He must have gone a-strollin'
Though he was old enough to vote
He's lost, strayed or stolen
When he began to feel his oats
He went out chasing nannie goats
You never struck such a giddy old buck
Has anybody seen my goat?

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.