The Grammarphobia Blog

Goat couture

Q: What is the origin of the expression “get one’s goat”?

A: What a disappointment. The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang says that “despite several attempted explanations, the inspiration behind this phrase remains unknown.”

A hunch: perhaps it has to do with the goat’s fabled reputation as an irritable and cantankerous creature. This is only a wild guess, with no authority whatsoever to back it up. In fact, forget I even mentioned it!

All we can say about the expression is that it originated as American slang meaning to anger or annoy, and that the first known published usage (as of this writing) is from 1904.

The Random House slang dictionary gives a citation from a book called Life in Sing Sing in which “goat” is defined as prison lingo for anger.

Aside: A review of the book in Publishers Weekly on Dec. 3, 1904, described the author, identified only as “Number 1500,” as a man who spent six and a half years as a prisoner at Sing Sing. The review said he founded and edited the prison’s biweekly newspaper.

The next Random House citation is from a 1908 newspaper story in the New York American that says, in part: “The supreme contempt … evidently got the ‘goat’ of Mr. Frederick Clarke.”

The citation is quoted in The Unforgettable Season (1981), Gordon H. Fleming’s book about the 1908 National League pennant race, told from newspaper accounts at the time.

A Google search of that book (which is fascinating, by the way) turns up another quotation from 1908, one with a different meaning.

A reporter from the New York Evening Journal described a wife’s reaction after her husband hit a game-winning home run for the Giants: “It was the little woman with tears of joy trickling down her cheeks and so wildly clapping her gloved hands … that got my goat.”

Here, the reporter means he was moved, not annoyed. So, as of 1908 at least, the expression was still a work in progress.

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