A hand about to grab a goat

Get one's goat

Meaning: Annoy someone

Originated in: 🇺🇸 United States of America

Earliest attestation: Washington Times, (November 18, 1905)

“To get one’s goat” is one of the strangest idioms in the English language. Some of the earliest written uses of it are in fact just remarking at how strange an expression it is. It is fair to imagine that someone stealing your goat would upset you. But why did that specifically become an American idiom, and why did it arise after the Industrial Revolution when most people no longer owned any livestock? We know the expression arose around the turn of the nineteenth century, but there is no known explanation of its origin.

The complete lack of evidence has not stopped people from wildly speculating as to its origins however. Probably the best guess is that it comes from rivalrous pranks. Goats were used as mascots of schools, military units, firehouses, and other organizations. Contemporary stories talk of how leaving your goat mascot behind is something “no soldier-man is willing to contemplate.” Even today, the US Naval Academy famously has Bill the Goat as its mascot. Stealing the mascot goat of a rival organization would be a classic way to annoy them and show your supposed superiority.

Another common but unlikely story is the similar idea that goats were used as calming companions for racehorses or milk cows. Stealing the goat would then make the horse or cow upset and perform poorly.

Another idea is that it comes from the French expression « prendre la chèvre », which directly translates to “take the goat” and originated hundreds of years earlier when goats were a common source of milk. However, it is not clear how it would have made its way into American English so much later, especially as even in French the expression was already in decline, being replaced by « devenir chèvre ». Also, it meant to become angry yourself, not to make someone else angry. And finally, “get one’s goat” is identified as an American expression by contemporary sources, not a French one, so this theory is plausible, but also unlikely.

Many other theories have been proposed, such as that it was making fun of goatees, that it reflects the annoyance of your neighbors owning goats, or that it has something to do with jokes about gloves made out of goat skin. However, these are even more far-fetched and also without evidence, so they are generally considered to just be folk etymologies.

Regardless of where it comes from, “get one’s goat” is a colorful, almost taunting at times, expression that is still in use today. Try not to let its mysterious origins get your goat!