Getting One’s Goat.

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” (I have to say, if you’re going to use a nom de blog, why pick one as boring as Peter Jensen Brown?)


  1. I’m taking bets over here that it turns out to have nothing to do with goats and more to do with “goad”, since that is closer to the meaning of the expression. I can’t explain how the whole expression came to be, but I bet that will turn out to be the eroded and mangled stump of something perfectly obvious, the way “bye bye” is.

  2. I’d say the chances are that the goat variant is original. It occurs consistently in the earliest documented occurrences of the idiom. The following list may be of additional help to anyone who wants to speculate about “getting someone’s goat”.

    Note that those early “goats” could also be lost or dropped, but the alliterative variant soon became completely fixed. Its meaning may have evolved quickly during the nineteen-teens, as people initially unfamiliar with the new catchphrase tried to make sense of it, but the form seems to have been preserved unchanged.

    I’ll take me goat.

  3. What? Why did I write that?

    I’ll GET me goat.

  4. Patrick Taylor says

    In my previous incarnation as the etymologist for the AHD, before the layoff of the staff there, I used to wonder about this expression too… so I am passing on something that I remember noticing. I don’t think it was mentioned in any of the articles that were linked to above. French has a somewhat similar expression that dates at least from 1675. Here is the relevant section from the Trésor de la langue française informatisé (hyperlinked next door in the “Language Resources” section of the Language Hat blog), under the word chèvre:

    Prendre la chèvre (vieilli, fam.). Se mettre en colère. Faire devenir chèvre. Faire enrager. Quand on n’a pas d’enfants, on est jaloux de ceux qui en ont et quand on en a, ils vous font devenir chèvre! (PAGNOL, Fanny, 1932, I, 7, p. 107) :
    Aussi, il n’y a qu’un instant, ai-je failli prendre la chèvre, comme l’on dit, quand M. le curé m’a répondu (…) qu’on n’avait que faire de mes services. F. FABRE, Les Courbezon, 1862, p. 374.

    And from the etymological section of the entry:

    ca 1220 tenir por chievre « tenir pour fou » (G. DE COINCY, éd. Koenig, I Mir, 18, 614); 1675 devenir chèvre (J.-H. WIDERHOLD, Nouv. dict. fr.-all. et all.-fr., Bâle)

    I am not sure what the significance of these facts are in relation to the development of the English expression, but it is more data to be added to Ben’s hopper. I never ventured to look in any other languages besides French and English for similar expressions. Of course, the French expression lacks the alliterative charm of the English “get one’s goat”…

  5. One highly consequential piece of prison slang missing from the (surely compendious) dictionary at the start of the chapter “Slang Among Convicts” is short eyes, meaning pedophile.

  6. That probably should be hyphenated: “Dude’s talking like a short-eyes,” e.g.

  7. Trond Engen says

    I don’t know much about Peter Reitan, but his surname hails from the Trondheim region of Norway, Jensen is a Scandinavian surname too, and the e-mail address he’s using at ADS-L is pjreitan@… That doesn’t explain Brown, though. It could be anything from another heritage name to an obscure pop culture reference.

  8. Stefan Holm says

    And now something completely different. In Reitan-Jensen-Brown’s article I saw the sentence: ‘…it may reasonably be assumed that from the time of the Roman galleys the goat was found as a mascot on board ship with the same frequency that he is today’.

    Hey – a goat referred to as ‘he’! It may be that the word even in my tounge, (get), today refers to both a he-goat and a she-goat and that the common gender ‘den’ (it) is standard but my linguistic sense given through my mothers milk spontaneously reacted: If it’s not ‘it’, it must be ‘she’ (Sw. ‘hon’). So I checked it up and OE gat really was feminine, like modern German (die) Geiẞ. I guess Trond can confirm, that so is also the case in Norwegian (‘geit’) – surely you in the definite case say ‘geita’ just as I among kinsmen say ‘geta’?

    In Swedish and German ‘get/Geiẞ’ is still used about females of other species like the ibex and various deers. The male is ‘Bock’ (buck). Is there anybody in the Anglophone world who has the same gut feeling about this?

  9. Why do your eszetts look so weird, Stefan? Are they capitals?

    In English, the females corresponding to male “bucks” in various species (including deer and rabbits) are called “doe”. I’ve never heard “goat” applied to other animals, and I don’t think of goats as inherently female.

  10. Trond Engen says

    Both Bokmål and Nynorsk: ei geit – geita – geiter – geitene
    Some three-gender Swedish : e get – geta – geter – geterna
    Danish: en ged – geden – geder – gederne
    (especially the definite plural forms are varied in dialects)

    The -r(-) in the Danish indefinite and definite plural endings is a relic of the old noun paradigms, and I think it’s more common among what used to be feminines. Or rather, bisyllabics generally takes -r in the plural, but a monosyllabic noun taking the -r pretty much has to be an old feminine.

  11. Stefan Holm says

    Sorry, Keith. I usually write my postings in Word and then copies them (remember I’m a non native and think it’s somewhat polite to double check before submitting). As for non Latin (or Swedish) characters I use the ‘Insert’ + ‘Symbol’ (Unicode hex) option in Words and that might turn up odd. In this case I searched a lot before finding something looking like the eszett. Lesson learned – a fool proof alternative is of course to simply copy from a German site. The only trouble (one maybe even doesn’t have to care about) is to change the font – I myself use Times New Roman 12.

    And no – I didn’t expect Anglophones to have maintained the sense of ‘goat’ as female. The Online Etymology Dictionary dates the change to the late 1300s.

  12. I don’t have any sense of gender with goat, but Russian has козёл (m.) and коза (f.), with very different (all bad) connotations.

  13. Stefan Holm says

    To be a petit maître, Trond, the dialectal indefinite plural in Swedish is ‘getter’ (VC:) and the definite is ‘gettera’ (with the ‘n’ assimilated).

    But I have to ask you: The weather forecast on local TV here in Gothenburg is to and fro presented by a meteorologist by the name of Jannike Geitskaret. Her Norwegian origin is unmistakable from her very appealing prosody. She pronounces the district of Halland with the ‘a’:s like in (American) English ‘car’ and the ‘l’ slightly supradental. Now – what does the second part of her surname, skaret, mean? The goat’s what? Swedish ‘skär’ (small rocky island) seems unlikely to not having been umlauted also in Norwegian.

  14. Well, rats — I did a video search on her and found only a six-second “Jannicke Geitskaret mikrofonproblem” clip, which had been taken down because of copyright. At any rate, she was born in Bergen.

  15. There’s a Norwegian word skar ‘cleft, cut; gap, pass (in mountains)’; could it be Goat’s Pass?

    Also, if anyone was wondering whether geitost had been mentioned on LH, it has: on May 3, 2012, AJP Crown wrote, “Yeah, like an ostehøvel through geitost.”

  16. Trond Engen says

    Ah, gettera. I should’ve remembered that. Especially since I don’t understand the short -e- in the plural forms.

    Yeah, “Goat’s Pass”. Obviously the name of a farm, and pretty transparently a small one. According to O. Rygh’s Norske Gaardnavne, it’s in Åsane in Bergen, close to were she grew up. Incidentally, Rygh tells (with an exclamation mark!) that

    Gjeitskaret. Udt. je2ttskare (!).
    Foran lang Konsonantforbindelse er i Stedets Dialekt Tvelyden ei bleven
    forenklet t. Ex. i Flertalsformen je1tna, Gjedene.

    So she sort of came to her own.

    I’ve seen her a couple of times on Swedish TV, but I haven’t noticed any particular Norwegian accent. If anything I thought of her as of Northern origin, since a farm named Geitskaret sounds more Northern than Western to me.

    I don’t know what’s going on with her a in Halland. The southwestern parts of Norway have somewhat more continental vowels than Central-Northern Scandinavia, but that area doesn’t extend as far as Bergen.

  17. Stefan Holm says

    Wow, Hat! Are you a former detective? I’m doubtful though to the statement in the article, that she ‘talar svenska utan brytning. Hon har angett att det var nödvändigt att anpassa sig’. (…speaks Swedish without an accent. She claimed it was necessary to adapt).

    Her accent was possibly only spied by me as interested in linguistics. But in front of the ‘necessary to adapt’ part I hesitate. Norwegian accent is state of the art today in Sweden. After all we’re all today dependent upon them viking oil sheiks: Alcohol is in Sweden only sold through the state monopoly ‘Systembolaget’. Where do they sell most? In Srockholm? In Gothenburg? In Malmö? No, no, no – it’s in the little town of Strömstad (‘Stream stead’) close to the Norwegian border where they come in hordes to buy the (to them) cheap stuff. The same goes for groceries, meat, bread, spices, you name it.

    In the old agricultural days the Danes, due to their flat fertile lands, dominated Scandinavia. Then Sweden took the lead during the industrial revolution with its iron, copper, silver, zinc etc. mines, its vast forests and hydro power facilities. Now the turn has come to the Norwegians, thanks to gas and oil. Hopefully we’ll worldwide recognize that blood is thicker than water.

  18. Amen!

  19. Trond Engen says

    “Goat’s Ravine” rather than “Goat’s Pass”. Skar(d) is from the “shear” word, so cognate to ‘shard’, seemingly.

  20. English “goat” describes a lecherous old man, not a lecherous old woman. For the latter I seem to lack a lexeme; “cougars” are too young.

  21. Since we’re discussing goats, I can’t believe that AJP hasn’t popped in with some interesting observations. I suppose the old goat is busy with other things…

  22. If you live on the edge and video search for just “Geitskaret” you can get a full weather forecast.

    (Don’t tell the copyright owners!)

  23. Tusen takk!

  24. AJP "Gordon" Bleu says

    I’ve just had nothing to add, really. But thanks for asking, Bathtub. We’ve done skar somewhere once, it’s cognate to scar, never mind shear & shard. I remember linking to Turner’s and James Ward’s images of Gordale Scar in Yorkshire (or perhaps I should say, in the Tate).

  25. We’ve done skar somewhere once

    We have indeed — what a memory!

  26. Stefan Holm says

    Thank you Des! The world is certainly becoming smaller. I was afraid that my reference to a weather forecast lady in a Swedish backwater region couldn’t be controlled but regarded as fictional. But there she was!

    I didn’t know that she had moved from Västergötland (Western Geats’ Land) south of lake Vänern to Värmland (Warm Land) north of it. But she is now closer to home since Värmland borders to Norway (and by the way is the home of the absolute majority of the most beloved poets in Sweden).

  27. Trond Engen says

    Stefan: I didn’t know that she had moved from Västergötland (Western Geats’ Land) south of lake Vänern to Värmland (Warm Land) north of it.

    If it’s anything like the Norwegian public channel regional news weather forecasts, they won’t each have engaged their own meteorologists, but rather depend on the service provided by the mother channel. When it’s her day, she’ll record all of them, or at least a couple of neighboring regions, and maybe the national forecast as well.

  28. We have indeed

    I didn’t know you could search for a word within a post. I don’t think that works in my blog.

    There’s a popular downhill & cross-country skiing resort in the Jotunheim mountains called Beitostolen, that I thought for a long time (being quite deaf to consonants) was called Geitost-olen (geitost = “goat cheese”).

  29. Trond Engen says

    AJP: Geitost-olen (geitost = “goat cheese”)

    Geitost-ølen “The goat cheese beer”. There’s a product waiting for an entrepreneur. Sounds horrible, but might sell in Minot.

  30. David Marjanović says

    For characters that aren’t on my keyboard I use the Windows Character Map. The first time, you need to dig it up in Start > All Programs > Accessories > System Programs* > Character Map; then it’ll be in the start menu.

    * …because where else than in Accessories would you put System Programs when you’re programming an operating system where you need to click on Start to shut it down.

    I didn’t know you could search for a word within a post.

    If you are on that page, press Ctrl+F; that’s your browser’s inbuilt search engine.

    If you’re not already on that page, there’s the site: tag in Google: goat will find all LH posts that have mentioned goats.

    Why do your eszetts look so weird, Stefan? Are they capitals?


    As soon as Unicode reserved a spot for this rather hypothetical letter, font designers started to create a shape to fill it; and now you can download communism. 🙂

  31. I didn’t know you could search for a word within a post.

    The site search only finds words in posts, not comments; I googled [languagehat “skar”] and there it was. I’m usually too lazy to do the thing.

  32. Thank you!

  33. Trond, I missed that one. It could work as a new twist on juleøl, Christmas beer that seems to me exactly like the beer sold during the rest of the year save for the word “jul” added to the label. But that’s just me; apparently it has great significance in Scandinavia and is stronger than usual (so strong sometimes that it’s only sold at the state-run vinmonopolet rather than at the supermarket).

    Should you wish to develop a thirst, you can also buy Christmas anchovies.

  34. Stefan Holm says

    Ansjovis is an absolute favorite among Swedes and a must on the smörgåsbord, especially as an ingridient in Janssons frestelse, ‘Jansson’s Temptation’
    But it’s actually a fraud! The story begins with 19th c. fishermen who when trawling for herring got a lot of sprat/brisling (Sprattus sprattus) in their catch. It had no commercial value and was considered as trash fish.

    But then a guy during a visit to Southern Europe got to know a delicious tinned (with oil and spices) fish called anchois (French) or anchovas (Portugese). He started producing a similar tinned variety but with sprats in Sweden and called it ‘ansjovis’. It became an immediate success, my ancestors liked it and the price was low.

    As trade developed the real ‘anchois’ (Engraulis encrasicolus) however reached Sweden. What to do with the name? Well the (mainly) Portugese suppliers decided to sell it under the name sardeller, ‘little sardines’. Even the sardine itself (Sardina pilchardus) in tomato sauce was copied with sprats tinned using a similar recipe. So now you have to read the content label to differ the real stuff:

    from the sprat copy:

    It’s a wonder that the otherwise so unable-to-let-things-alone EU authorities haven’t sued Sweden for brand theft.

  35. Stefan Holm says
  36. Stefan Holm says

    You are absolutely right, AJP, about the juleøl, Sw. julöl. They just change the label of some dark beer. But one out of few things that differs Sweden from Norway is the non alcoholic beverage julmust, ‘Yule sap’.
    Its hold on the Swedes is so strong that even Coca Cola in spite of intense marketing campaigns during the last quarter of a century hasn’t been able to compete in yuletide. Norwegians on the other hand are (or at least some years ago were) the per capita biggest consumers of Coke in Europe.

    Julmust isn’t sold during the rest of the year – with the exception of Easter, when they relabel the residue from Christmas as påskmust, ‘Easter sap’. If you happen to have an IKEA facility within reach they will for sure serve the whole battery of Swedish Christmas food stuff during December.

  37. Trond Engen says

    AJP lives only a stone throw away from IKEA (what I’ve been told was their first shop outside Sweden, actually). They had to reinforce the roof and cladding.

  38. They had to reinforce the roof and cladding.

    Because of AJP? Or was it the goats?

  39. Trond Engen says

    Who am I to cast the first stone?

    Norwegian Juleøl is traditionally darker, stronger, sweeter and more … savory than the all year beer, but the tradition has been watered out recently, since the stronger sorts were confined to our state monopoly, Vinmonopolet. Juleøl and geitost aren’t bad together at all, by the way. It’s the mix in one bottle I would shy away from.

  40. Here’s the entry for “Misling” from William van Orman Quine’s “intermittently philosophical dictionary”, Quiddities (1987), with a few notes by me in square brackets:

    At some point each of us has perhaps been misled, or has known some equally literate acquaintance to have been misled, by the preterite and participle misled. He encountered the word, grasped its meaning by context and even used it in his own writing. At length he even spoke it, as mizzled [or myzeled], never detecting that it was just the old familiar preterite and participle of mislead that he had been pronouncing correctly for half his life.

    But the verb misle that is born of that misconception is too pat to pass up, descriptive as it is of the very circumstance that engendered it. Perhaps we can press it into service as a mild word for the restrained sort of deception, not quite actionable as fraud even in Ralph Nader’s day, that has a respected place in enlightened modern merchandising.

    A venerable case is that of the sardine, the Sardinia pilchardus of the French and Iberian coasts. The young of this species, oiled and tight-packed in tins, are so good that packers have found it expedient to extent the term sardine to other and humbler members of the herring family when similar purveyed. Maine fisheries are permitted by law to apply the term to the local herring, and the Norwegians have followed suit, misling with the brisling.

    The sardine case has gone on so long and on such a scale that it perhaps no longer qualifies as misling: the word ‘sardine’ might simply be said to have come to mean the canned young of any species of the herring family. I have read that by international agreement every country’s definition is now respected, and that twenty-one species are so countenanced. But then we need a distinctive word for those particular succulent young herring, Sardinia pilchardus. Well, we have pilchard.

    A no less venerable but less melancholy case, received certainly by present company as good-natured slapstick, is the soap that is represented as 99 44/100 percent pure. It floats. Is it so pure that it floats? [No, it just has a lot of air.] They don’t say that. Pure what? [It really is 99.44% soap, by analysis, once you exclude the air.] They don’t say. It’s just good clean fun.

    The nostalgic curvaceous Coca Cola bottle was an eloquent case of wordless misling. Its fluid capacity of six and a half ounces was modestly marked in conformity with the law, but what uninquiring mind would dream that a whole Coke could be got into a little paper cup? A likely reaction, on downing a bottle, was “I was thirstier than I thought, I’ll guess I have another.” [Adding salt to the soda helps with that too.] I picture the second nickel (eheu fugaces!), and not the piddling saving in water and syrup, as the payoff of the imaginative packaging.

    A startlingly barefaced try at misling has lately appeared on some soup cans. The cans are generous in size, because the soup is not concentrated; it has its full aqueous bulk. So far so good. But how is it explained on the can? “Full strength; no need to add water.” Bewildering yes; but misling? None will be misled who does not richly deserve it.

    I saw a companion piece on a billboard for vodka. “Now in 80 proof,” it screamed, making it sound like an extra special added feature attraction.

    I turn to a more sinister case. I am told of a canner of salmon whose product was persistently white instead of the canonical pink. He made a spurious virtue of this chromatic deficiency by proclaiming: “Guaranteed not to turn red in the can.” How many neophytes may he have turned against good pink salmon?

    To that sad tale there is again a companion piece. This time the can contains the little black lumpfish eggs that look like caviar. The label says “It’s real caviar. Lumpfish, not sturgeon.” The last half is true. The first half, therefore, is false, putting the case beyond the case of mere misling, except as the Food and Drug Administration may see fit to generalize the word caviar after the manner of sardine. The label may initiate two grave misconceptions -first that sturgeon caviar is not the real thing, and second that the lumpfish product is entitled to the title in a way that the larger and more flavorful salmon-pink alternative, salmon eggs, is not. The real thing is indeed on the reach, but I give you salmon eggs.

  41. Stefan Holm says

    I guess we’ll have to, and maybe ought to, live with this. In Sweden all kinds of roe from fish is called caviar. One variety of salted and smoked cod roe, Kalles kaviar, has become so popular, that it has made its way into the IKEA worldwide asortment of typical Swedish food.

    Another popular one is the red or black coloured roe of the Lumpfish (Cyclopterus lumpus), produced in Denmark and sold under the brand ‘Limfjord Caviar’. These are all delicious but of course nothing like the real stuff, the Russian or Iranian Икрa, for most of us a once in a lifetime experience.

    Sardines, by the way, you since two years can’t buy in Swedish supermarkets after a EU fishing ban in the Mediterranean (due to overfishing). But I buy them from a local shop run by an Iranian guy and don’t ask where he got them from. I did however ask about the fresh strawberries he sold (reasonably priced) in the mid of last winter. ‘Flown in from Ecuador’ he replied. And I thought: if that can be done every human problem on this planet must be possible to solve’.

  42. David Marjanović says

    for most of us a once in a lifetime experience

    If that. All the sturgeons in the Caspian Sea are horribly overfished.

Speak Your Mind