Get Your Goat

By Maeve Maddox

Until a reader asked me about it, I hadn’t encountered the eggcorn “to get one’s goad.”

eggcorn: the reshaping of a common word or expression in a way that makes sense to the speaker.

The expression is “to get one’s goat” (not goad). The earliest documentation in the OED is dated 1910.

In modern usage, the usual meaning is “to annoy,” “to make angry,” “to cause someone to display emotion.” Here are examples:

After Ferrer took office, when opponents really wanted to get his goat, they taunted him as “Stanley Ferrer.” The name made him seethe.

Extreme left liberals and ultra-right conservatives both get his goat.

What seems to get his goat the most is that the recession seems to have knocked away people’s interest in the environment.

Maitreya is famous for having subdued his temper through learning ‘patience under insult.’ You simply can’t upset him. Insults, curses, even blows will not get his goat or shake his equanimity. 

The origin of the expression is, as they say, “obscure.” Various creative explanations have been put forth, including one that suggests the expression derives from the practice of giving racehorses goats as companions to keep them calm. The convoluted reasoning is that if someone were to “get” the goat before a race, the horse would be too upset to run well.

If the expression does in fact derive from some connection with the animal–and not from some forgotten slang meaning for the word goat–I think it may relate to one of several associations with goats that exist in our culture. I won’t go into all of them now, but one characteristic is liveliness.

The wild playful way goats jump about with sudden leaps and turns gives us the words caprice and capricious. It’s not much of a stretch to associate “to get one’s goat” with this aspect of goat behavior. I once watched someone try to get her pet goat under control. She looked like someone trying to catch a grasshopper without a net.

The expression “to get one’s goat” could have something to do with comparing the struggle to control turbulent emotions to the difficulty of trying to catch a goat. I have found a quotation that bears out this explanation. It predates the one in the OED.

In this example, a union president is taken by surprise when presented with a beautiful commemorative gavel:

At the last meeting of No. 16 ex-President Colbert proceeded to get the goat of President Knott. […] Mr. Knott was taken completely by surprise, and it was some moments before he could get his “goat” under control and thank the members of No. 16 for such a magnificent gift. –The Typographical Journal, Volume 35 (1909).

Human beings want things to make sense. Speakers who replace goat with goad are making an interesting mental leap. A goad is a pointed object used to prod animals; ergo, a person prodded with a goad would become angry. Nevertheless, the idiom is “to get one’s goat.”

Related post: The Sands and Hands of Time

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3 Responses to “Get Your Goat”

  • Dale A Wood

    Very nice, Maeve.

  • Elizabeth B

    In my youth (somewhere in the 1950s – 60s in south-eastern Australia) we always said something “gets ON my goat”. Saying “gets my goat” would have been considered ignorant and silly.

  • Roberta B.

    Elizabeth B. – However, it may have caught on as a combination in your part of the world of “to get one’s goat” and “to get on one’s nerves.” Both represent aggravation. So, the ignorant and silly part, well………

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