You know someone has got your goat when your face starts to resemble a beetroot and steam threatens to come out your ears as you feel anger and annoyance seething within… But what has getting angry really got to do with goats?
There are a lot of theories about the origin of “getting your goat”:
Unfortunately, the term “getting your goat” is one of those phrases whose true origin is incredibly difficult to track down. All we have are a smattering of entertaining yet unsubstantiated stories about its origins:
Theory 1: Goat was a slang word for anger
Although why goat would be a slang word for anger is not clear, it seems that it was indeed a synonym for it in the early 1900s according to the book “Life in Sing Sing” (1904).
This slang term may perhaps be related to an idea that we all have an inner goat (or primal, animal side) inside us that, when provoked, expresses itself as anger. So when someone manages to make your angry, they succeed in “getting your goat” out.
Theory 2: Goats were used to calm other animals so when the goat was taken away, the animals became agitated
One of the most widely spread stories behind “getting your goat”, and which is supported by the likes of H.L. Mencken amongst others, is based on the idea that goats were sometimes placed in stalls with skittish animals like cows or horses to help soothe their restlessness. Although this may sound a bit strange, the practice of putting animals together to calm them is a common technique and it is not unheard of that animals like horses are soothed by the presence of other animals like ponies, dogs, cats or even chickens.
So why would “to get your goat” imply “to annoy” or “to anger”? Because when the soothing goat was removed from the previously restless animals’ stall, the animal’s disquiet would return, sometimes with added anger at having its companion taken away.
The most commonly told story is that skittish racehorses would be calmed by the presence of a goat companion in their stalls. Gamblers who wanted to sabotage the horse’s performance would see this as an opportunity. These crafty crooks would “get the goat” and steal it. The racehorse, blinded by rage that its beloved companion had been taken away, would then perform badly in the race.
Critics of this theory doubt that goats would be used as companion animals often enough to lead to the rise of a phrase. It’s unclear just how popular a practice it was to use goats in this way.
Theory 3: Goat is a mispronunciation of goad
Another theory which doesn’t have a lot of evidence to back it up, is that the original saying may have been “to get your goad”, where a goad is a special rod used to urge animals on, like a cattle prod. When someone uses a goad on an animal, they prod and poke, potentially irritating the animal.
Theory 4: If you where a goatkeeper, if someone got your goat you’d be angry!
If you owned a goat, whether you were a goatherd or simply an ordinary citizen who happened to have a goat to provide your milk, you would be a bit miffed if someone got your goat.
Supporting this theory is the similar Old French phrase “prendre la chèvre” which translates to “to take the goat”, and it has a slightly different meaning than the English phrase. “Prendre la chèvre” is used to describe the situation when income was taken from them; a situation which would often cause anger too.