Q: I can’t find to whom the appellation “G.O.A.T.” (Greatest Of All Time) was first applied: Michael Jordon, Muhammad Ali, etc. I’d like to learn it was Vin Scully, whose retirement this year after his last broadcast, in late September, will be a BIG deal. Can you figure it out?
A: The word “goat” has been used in American sports since the early 1900s, first as a derisive term for a player responsible for a team’s loss, and later, often in capital letters, as an acronym for “greatest of all time.”
It’s hard to pin down exactly when the term showed up as a positive acronym and which sports figure was the first to benefit from the new usage.
One problem is that it was used in sports as an initialism (an abbreviation made up of initial letters pronounced separately) about a dozen years before it showed up in sports as an acronym (an abbreviation formed from initial letters but pronounced as a word).
We’ll get to the sports usage in a bit, but let’s first look at the original use of “goat” as the name for, as dictionaries put it, the hardy domesticated ruminant Capra hircus.
In Old English, a male goat was a “bucca” and a female a “gat” (early versions of “buck” and “goat”). In early Middle English, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, “goat began to encroach on the semantic territory of buck.”
By the 14th century, Ayto says, “goat” had become the dominant form for both sexes, with “she-goat” and “he-goat” used to differentiate them (“nanny-goat” showed up in the 18th century and “billy-goat” in the 19th).
Over the centuries, the noun “goat” took on several figurative senses, including the zodiacal sign Capricorn (first recorded sometime before 1387), a licentious man (before 1674), and a fool (1916).
The earliest example we’ve found for “goat” used in the sports sense is from The Dickson Baseball Dictionary (3rd ed.), by Paul Dickson:
“Catcher [Charles] Schmidt, who had been the ‘goat’ of the first game [of the World Series], redeemed himself at this time.” (From the Oct. 10, 1909, issue of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.)
Dickson notes that most explanations for the origin of the baseball usage describe it as a clipped form of “scapegoat” that refers “to a player whose error is being blamed for a team’s defeat.”
However, he points out that one language researcher, Gerald L. Cohen, challenged this theory in the Dec. 1, 1985, issue of Comments on Etymology.
“A scapegoat is innocent, whereas the goat is not; he has blundered, usually at a crucial moment,” Cohen writes. “And the standard etymology of ‘goat’ as a shortening of ‘scapegoat’ is therefore almost certainly in error.”
He suggests instead that the usage might have been influenced by a goat used to haul a peanut wagon in the late 19th century. Perhaps, but we think the erroneous-shortening hypothesis seems more likely.
Getting back to your question, the earliest example we could find for “G.O.A.T.” used to mean ”greatest of all time” is from September 1992, when Lonnie Ali, Muhammad Ali’s wife, incorporated Greatest of All Time, Inc. (G.O.A.T. Inc.) to consolidate and license her husband’s intellectual properties for commercial purposes.
Lonnie Ali served as vice president and treasurer of the corporation until it was sold in 2006. (The business is now known as Muhammad Ali Enterprises, a subsidiary of Authentic Brands Group.)
Ali often referred to himself as “the greatest” and sometimes as “the greatest of all time.” In the May 5, 1971, issue of the Harvard Crimson, for example, he’s quoted as saying: “I wanted to be the world’s greatest fighter at 11-years-old … I wanted to be the greatest of all time.”
(Many other athletes have been called the “greatest of all time.” A 1924 issue of Vanity Fair, for example, uses the expression for the British tennis player Laurence Doherty, while a 1956 issue of Sports Illustrated uses it for the Basque jai alai player Erdoza Menor.)
However, we could find no written evidence that Ali or anyone else in the 20th century used “goat,” “GOAT,” or “G.O.A.T” as an acronym (a word pronounced like “goat”) to mean “greatest of all time.”
The earliest example we could find for the term used as an acronym is an album by the American rapper LL Cool J entitled “G.O.A.T. (Greatest Of All Time),” released on Sept. 12, 2000.
In “The G.O.A.T.” track on the album, LL Cool J (a k a James Todd Smith) repeatedly says, “I’m the G.O.A.T.” (pronounced “goat”) and “the greatest of all time.”
By 2003, the term was being used in the sporting sense, but it’s unclear from the early written citations whether it was pronounced like “goat” or spelled out (“G-O-A-T”).
The online Urban Dictionary, a slang reference site that relies on definitions submitted by users, has two Sept. 28, 2003, contributions:
“Greatest Of All Time: Michael Jordan is the G.O.A.T.” … “anacronym for G.reatest O.f A.ll T.ime Ultimate competitor G-O-A-T etc.,etc.”
Magic Johnson was apparently using “goat” in the old negative sense when he was quoted on an NBA website on March, 3, 2003, as saying Kobe Bryant has “plenty of great years ahead of him. He’ll be one of the best clutch players in NBA history. He wants it. He has no fear about whether he’s the goat or not.”
But the term is clearly being used in a positive way in this title from a July 21, 2004, post on the Basketball Forum comparing Wilt Chamberlain and Hakeem Olajuwon: “Wilt Chamberlain is overrated; Hakeem is the GOAT.”
And the term is positive in a July 12, 2004, article in the Los Angeles Times that describes the American sprinter Maurice Green’s victory in the 100-meter dash at Olympic trials in Sacramento:
“Maurice Greene released a shriek of joy and pointed to the tattoo on his right biceps, a stylized lion whose mane shelters the letters GOAT, for Greatest of All Time.”
Although Vin Scully has been referred to as “the goat,” most of the examples we’ve found came after an April 4, 2016, broadcast in which the sportscaster says he learned of the usage from the outfielder Jon Jay.
“Jon Jay had a big thrill,” Scully said. “He was in a shoe store buying some shoes and who came in? Michael Jordan.”
When Jay referred to Jordan as “the G.O.A.T.,” Scully was puzzled: “ ‘Goat’? Why is Michael Jordan ‘goat’? ‘No, no,’ he said. ‘G-O-A-T. Greatest of all time.’ ”
One last point: Some people believe the usage can be traced to Earl (the Goat) Manigault, a New York City playground basketball player who many thought was the greatest of all time, though his career was cut short by years of drug abuse.
However, Manigault, who died in 1998 at the age of 53, got the nickname because a teacher in junior high school pronounced his name “Mani-Goat,” according to his obituary in the New York Times.
[Update, July 22, 2016: A reader notes that in David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel Infinite Jest, Joelle Van Dyne is referred to as “the P.G.O.A.T., for the Prettiest Girl of All Time.]