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Don't let this idiom "get your goat"

Idioms generally don't get clearer the longer you think about them. They simply mean what they mean.

For instance, have you ever thought about the phrase "get someone's goat"? You may already know that it means to annoy or anger someone, but why?

Our advice is don't spend too much time on this phrase -- it'll just get your goat.

Michael Quinion, a word detective and writer of the blog World Wide Words, quotes a 1927 writer who called the expression "one of the most absurd slang phrases in the English language." Quinion goes on to say that it's difficult to disagree with the writer, and "even worse, nobody has much of a clue where [this expression] comes from."

Ben Zimmer, who writes a language column for the Wall Street Journal, set out to predate the Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation of "get your goat." Based on articles he found in digitized newspaper databases, Zimmer was able to push the date back to 1906.

He then senthis findings to an American Dialect Society listserv, and other word sleuths were able to track down an even earlier citation from a 1905 edition of the New York journal Public Opinion. It was part of a series called "Experience of a Shop Girl":

"'Well, that gets my goat,' gasped Alice when we recovered speech.’ ‘The nerve of her.'"

A blogger who goes by the name Peter Jensen Brown has another theory on his sports blog. In a lengthy post, he makes the case that the expression comes from boxers in the US Navy. He found this quote from a 1905 edition of the Washington Times:

“I think the crowd got his goat, or the idea of fighting – one or the other – because he did not say boo and sat down like a mope.”

This citation reads a little differently than the first. The first example uses “gets my goat” to show that the character Alice is annoyed or irritated. In the example Jensen Brown found, the crowd got the boxer's goat by taking the fight out of him. However, in both cases, whether someone is annoyed or they’ve had the fight taken out of them, it’s safe to say they’ve lost their composure.

The expression peaks in the 1920s but diminishes in the 1930s and goes out of fashion. We still use it, but not nearly with the frequency that we used it then. 

There are many more theories out there about where to "get one's goat" comes from. One is that goats were put into stalls to calm horses before they raced. Theoretically, if you took the goat out of the stall, the horse would get upset. Quinion says, "One would have to have a substantial ability to suspend one's disbelief to accept this theory at face value."

Some people say that goats are irritable, so it makes sense that we would use this phrase to talk about people getting irritable. Another theory credits the slang use of "goat" to mean "anger" which was popular around the same time. And still another theory says it comes from "scapegoat," though there isn't any evidence to support that.

In short, we don't really know it comes from Do you have any ideas?

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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