Ben Zimmer discusses the expression “get one’s goat,” which he’s been investigating:
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. […]
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 […]
Ben says “research is still ongoing,” and invites readers to help: “If you do turn up any early appearances of ‘get one’s goat,’ let us know in the comments below or email firstname.lastname@example.org.” (I have to say, if you’re going to use a nom de blog, why pick one as boring as Peter Jensen Brown?)