Get my goat
This idiom is used to indicate that something has caused someone displeasure or irritation. The commonly accepted starting point in searching the etymology of the phrase is a prison memoir written by the mysterious convict, Number 1500 – presumably written to celebrate the fact that he was not a number, he was a free man – called Life in Sing Sing, published in 1904. In a chapter entitled Slang Among Convicts he defines goat as meaning anger or to exasperate.
Perhaps the earliest example of our idiom is a series entitled Experience of a Shop Girl, written by Elizabeth Howard Westwood and serialised in the Public opinion. The edition of 21st October 1905 featured a chapter called In the Working Girl’s Home and when someone criticised Alice Bailey’s table manners she said, “Well, that gets my goat, gasped Alice when we recovered speech. The nerve of her”. The sense and usage matches that of the current idiom.
The following year the Jersey Journal provides us with a couple more examples. In a report of a trial for assault (June 2nd) the accused, William Carmody, is reported as saying “Judge, he got my goat” while on December 14th its reporter was able to make a little joke about the phrase, “it is easy to get the goat of the police…for locked up in a cell at the Seventh Street police station is a Nannie that was arrested …for her obstreperous behaviour in Jersey Avenue yesterday”. Unlike Number 1500 the journalist was confident enough to use the phrase without the need to define it, suggesting that it was in currency at least in the area at the time.
Shortly thereafter the phrase crops up in sports journalism. In August 1908 William Kirk wrote of a baseball game, “The supreme contempt shown by Manager Mac for the club on top evidently got the goat of Mr Frederick Clarke” while in the same month, writing in the Atlantic Monthly, Rollin Hartt said of certain baseball players, “a little detraction will get their goat”. Away from temperamental baseball players the phrase cropped up in boxing reports where you can easily imagine a bit of provocation would easily raise an opponent’s ire. Richard Barry in the Prize Ring, published in Pearson’s Monthly in 1910, passed on the following advice from the reigning English lightweight champion, Freddie Welsh, a vegetarian with puny hips, to potential pugilists “get his goat”.
In this article, Barry attempted to explain the origin of the phrase. In horseracing circles, to prevent a favourite from going stale, the trainer would put a goat in the stable. Those wishing to nobble the favourite would break into the stables and remove the goat which would reduce the highly strung nag to a bag of nerves. Whether there is any truth in this I cannot say but it is more convincing than another theory I came across. Whilst Captain Cook was anchored off Tahiti some natives boarded his ship and stole the ship’s goat. This provoked fierce reprisals – canoes were burnt and hostages taken – until the goat was returned. Quite why it would take some 130 years for the phrase to surface in the argot of those incarcerated in Sing Sing is anyone’s guess.
It was not until 1924 that the phrase crossed the pond, in John Galsworthy’s White Monkey, “that had got the chairman’s goat” and if we wanted any confirmation that it was an American by origin, the Times in 1925 satirised the lingo of American tourists thus, “whispering Americans aloud, wa-al Sadie, those durned three star things get my goat”. I think we can conclude that it was prison slang that spread like wildfire into common currency.