Thursday, October 9, 2014

Getting Goats, Losing Goats, Stable Goats and Navy Goats - a History and Etymology of "Get My Goat"

Getting Goats, Losing Goats, Stable Goats and Navy Goats, a History and Etymology of “Get My Goat”

Ambition, A Journal of Inspirition to Self Help, Vol. 6, No. 4, p. 5.
To “get one’s goat” is an idiom that means, “to make one angry or annoyed.”  In the earliest examples of use, however, the idiom had a different meaning, namely to take the fight, or will to go on, from someone.  The more familiar sense, of angering, emerged within the first several years, and the two senses co-existed for many years.  The two senses can be combined into a common definition, of making someone lose their composure; lose their composure by becoming angry, or by giving up the fight.

Since at least 1912, the phrase has been thought to be based on the use of goats as mascots in racehorse stables:

The origin of this rather cumbrous jest appears to lie in the fact that a goat was considered a mascot in racing stables, so that to lose your goat was one of the most dreadful things that could befall you.

Country Life, volume 31, March 16, 1912, page 48. 

The suggestion is that the horse will not perform well if his goat is missing is more consistent with the early sense of “get one’s goat” (to sap the will to fight) than with the modern sense, of angering someone.

The theory is believable, as Goats are known to have been used as mascots by some racehorse trainers:

I know of one trainer who lost his goat and could not win a race of any sort until he got another one.  He to this day, believes that the death of the goat brought him a long run of bad luck.  Trainers and racing-men generally are highly charged with superstition.

The Sketch, Volume 31, number 396, August 29, 1900, page 252.

Puck, Volume 66, July 1909 - Political Stable Goat
But goats were also kept as mascots by livery stables, sailors, fraternal organizations, and sports teams; so it is not clear that racing stable goats were foremost in the minds of the people who coined the phrase. 

More tellingly, perhaps, none of the early appearances of the idiom, in print, relate directly or indirectly to horse racing.  Nearly all of the examples found in print from the first year or so of the idiom (from its first appearance in print, in late 1905, through early 1907) are found in reports of boxing matches.  The phrase was picked up in baseball reporting as early as mid-1907. 

Although one can imagine a common bond between or among horse race and boxing promoters, gamblers and/or sportswriters, that might lead an idiom from horse racing to cross over into boxing, it seems odd (if that were the case) that none of the sportswriters who were early adapters of “get one’s goat” applied the idiom to horse racing.  Despite the fact that horse racing news was featured prominently in the same sports pages, of the same papers that used “get my goat” in boxing, and later baseball, news, not one of the early examples of the idiom in use relate to horse racing.  If the idiom had been coined in, and in reference to, racehorses, I would have expected to find those stories; and I haven’t.  No one else has either. 

A common element that crops up in several of the early attestations of the phrase, however, suggests that the phrase may not have come from horse racing, or any other sport, for that matter.  That common element also has strong, traditional ties to both boxing and goats. 

The common element? – the United States Navy.

The Earliest Use of “Get My Goat”

[See my "Get My Goat" Update - and Jeff Otjen's comment, below - for an even earlier example of the idiom.]

The earliest use of “get my goat” that I found is from the report of a boxing match between a British sailor and an American sailor:

Bloomin’ Briton Won Hands Down.  Yankee Sailor Had No Chance Whatever.  American Couldn’t Fight and had Stage Fright – Was Whipped from Very Start. 
New York, Nov. 18. – John Bull took another fall out of Uncle Sam last night.  W. E. Cockayne [(a “British tar” (sailor))], his middle-weight fighter, made all kinds of monkey out of Jack Reine, of the battleship Iowa. . . .
Jack was a scrawny looking tar.  He looked as though the beans did not agree with him at all.  Jack was at sea.  Well, he was not exactly, either.  I think the crowd got his goat, or the idea of fighting – one or the other – because he did not say boo and sat down like a mope.  Tom Sharkey, the referee, was as busy as a bird dog telling the sailors what to do and how to do it.

Washington (DC) Times, November 18, 1905, page 8.  

The idiom also appeared about three weeks earlier in a story about the United States Navy in Collier’s magazine: [i]

“You were there, too, then? You were ashore?”

“Ha! Ha!”  He slapped Patrick on the shoulder and lay back grinning at me.  “If that don’t get my goat.”

Papeeyon, Stephen French Whitman[ii], Collier’s, volume 36, October 28, 1905, page 24.

In 1908, a newspaper article identified the phrase as Navy slang.  When a fleet of United States Navy ships pulled into port in San Francisco, the sailors on liberty were surprisingly well-behaved.  An article about the port-visit and their good behavior included a look at the Navy’s colorful slang:

The Slang of the “Garbie”

A soldier is called a “doughbelly” and a marine a “leather neck.” . . . .  In his own language Jack is not a bluejacket, but a “garbie,” or a “flatfoot,” and newly enlisted men are called “rookies.” If Jack succeeds in “guying” his neighbor he has “got his goat” – a white goat if it’s a friendly josh and a black goat if the victim gets mad.

New York Tribune, June 7, 1908, page 3. 

That article, standing alone, might not be very persuasive of the idiom’s ultimate origin.  By mid-1908, after all, the phrase “get my goat” had already become a well-known and widely used idiom.  And, just four days before the article appeared, a music publisher filed for copyright protection for the song, “Somebody’s Got My Goat”.[iii]    When coupled with the two early examples of the phrase, from 1905, which were both expressly Navy-related, the report that it was part of Navy slang may carry more weight. 

The Navy’s long-time, close association with goats and boxing also lends credence to the supposition.

Navy Goats

Army and Navy Register, V. 42, N. 1441, July 27, 1907, p. 3.

In 1907, the Army Navy Register reported that:

The popularity of the goat as a shipmate is unquestioned and of long standing.  While history is silent on the subject, 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.

Army and Navy Register (Washington DC), volume 42, number 1441, July 27, 1907, page 3.

Although I cannot vouch for the use of goats on Roman galleys, goats were kept on sailing vessels as mascots, and as a source of milk (in the days before refrigeration), from at least as early as the late 1700s:

I recognized the animal at once, for it belonged to me, I having purchased it in Bombay for my voyage to China in the Hormuzeer, and becoming fond of it, the beast being an excellent milker, had kept it ever since.

A Master Mariner, the Life of Capt. R. W. Eastwick (Herbert Compton, Editor), London, Fisher Unwin, 1891.[iv]

More than one-hundred years later, goats were still kept on ships.  For example, a goat survived the explosion of the Battleship, USS Maine, in Havana Harbor in 1898:

The base ball team of the battleship Main was made up of eleven men and a goat, the mascot.  Of the number one man and the goat are alive.  The former is John Blumer of Portland, who was the right fielder.  He was asleep in his hammock when the explosion occurred, was blown into the water and was picked up by a boat.  The only injury he suffered was a burn on the arm. 

Omaha Daily Bee, March 13, 1898, Part 3, page 22.

The use of goats as good-luck charms, or mascots, in the Navy was known even outside the cloistered world of the Navy.  Navy goats were mentioned prominently in a 1904 article about superstition in politics:

We laugh at this influence, and yet it goes far.  A single touch of superstition makes the whole world kin.  If you go on board a warship you find the jackies cherishing a mascot – a dog, a pig, a goat, a monkey, or something of the sort.  College boys are never at their best unless the ugliest of bulldogs or the blackest of cats, or some other live agency of luck, is present to inspire them in their base ball or foot ball contests.

Evening Star (Washington DC), November 26, 1904, page 4.

And a goat has been the mascot for the United States Naval Academy since at least 1893:

El Cid is at the Navy Yard, and is making every preparation to sail for Rio Janeiro as soon as possible.  Not El Cit that sailed for Brazil a few weeks ago, but El Cid the “billy-goat mascot” of Uncle Sam’s big cruiser New-York.  When the football game between the Army and Navy was played at Annapolis, November 2, the New-York forecastle men cast about for a mascot.  A thoroughbred man-of-war’s man would not enter into a contest amid the snares and perils of the land without the protecting influence of a mascot.  Genuine seamen have been ashore once or twice in their lives, and they know what a dangerous thing a land cruise is, and when it comes to staking the honor of the Navy on a game of football “played on land” nothing short of a mascot could induce them to do it.  So a delegation of the New-York’s boys went up to Harlem and purchased a good, substantial billy goat, a black one, one that had a powerful mascotic gleam in his eye.  They named him El Cid, and took him to Annapolis to attend the football game – and of course the Navy won.

New York Tribune, December 21, 1893, page 1.

In other words, goats and the Navy share a long history together.

The Navy also has a strong tradition of boxing. 

Navy Boxing

In the early 1900s, the Navy was a well-known for encouraging and fostering boxing talent.  In the early 1910s, for example, when shipboard “smokers” were first called “Happy Hour” (the origin of the expression as applied to after-work entertainment), boxing was one of the main attractions. 

In 1902, boxing was such an integral part of Navy life that even the boxing death of a sailor drew no punishment or reform:

Secretary Bonaparte, after a thorough examination of the records in the case of Raphael Cohen . . . said today that from an investigation of the records he saw nothing wrongful, although, of course, it was extremely deplorable that Cohen should have lost his life.  He added that boxing and athletics generally are encouraged in the service because of their beneficial influence on the health of the men.

The Salt Lake Tribune, August 16, 1905, page.

In 1903, Naval Apprentices at the Newport (Rhode Island) Training Center learned boxing as part of their training:

They are taught boxing, fencing, how to tie sailor knots, how to make sails, to row and sail boats, to drill as soldiers; and many other things.

Perrysburg (Ohio) Journal, July 24, 1903, page 7.

Perrysburg Journal, July 24, 1903.
The nickname, “Sailor,” was used by a number of professional fighters in the early 1900s, presumably because of a connection to the Navy.  In 1906, for example, “Sailor” Morch,[v] “Sailor” Kelly[vi] and “Sailor” Burke[vii] were active professional fighters.  “Sailor” Bowers had a brief career from 1910 through 1911[viii], and one of the biggest boxing stars of the day used the nickname, “Sailor.”

Tom ‘Sailor Tom’ Sharkey, who served in the Navy in the early 1890s, is said to have had a career record of 40-7-5, including a draw and win over “Gentleman Jim” Corbett and two losses to champion James Jeffries.  His second fight against Jeffries is considered the first indoor fight to be recorded on film (you can watch highlights of the fight HERE). 

“Sailor” Tom Sharkey was the referee at the Brits-versus-Yanks Navy boxing match in which the crowd reportedly “got [Jack Reine’s] goat.”  Sharkey also has connections to several fighters mentioned in the second-oldest “get your goat”/boxing reference that I found.  The reference, published in late 1906, recounts boxing advice that “Kid” McCoy gave to Jack O’Brien before his fight with Bob Fitzsimmons on December 20, 1905:

When Fitzsimmons was matched the second time with Jack O’Brien [(December 20, 1905)], Kid McCoy gives Jack a tip.

“Step on the old man’s feet,” said the kid.  “His feet are in the cornfield, and you will get his goat more by keeping on top of them all the time than by stabbing him in the food hopper.”

All through the session Jack crowded Fitz’s hoofs, and had the bald-headed bruiser of Bensonhurst on the hop to keep them in the clearing.  After the fight Fitz said, among other things:

“O’Brien had a funny way of trying to step on my toes.  I couldn’t make out what he was after, but it bothered me more than anything else he did.”

McCoy was in Jim Corbett’s corner that memorable night at Coney Island when Jim came so near, but just missed, beating Jeffries and winning back the championship.

Los Angeles Herald, December 17, 1906, page 6.

In 1896, “Sailor Tom” Sharkey fought Bob Fitzsimmons for the reputed Heavyweight Championship of the World (Corbett was believed to have relinquished the title, but later resumed his career – and reclaimed the title).  Wyatt Earp refereed the match, and awarded the fight to Sharkey after calling a disputed rules violation against Fitzsimmons.  Sharkey knocked out “Kid” McCoy in January 1899.

Whether Sharkey is personally responsible for introducing and spreading the expression, “to get one’s goat,” in boxing circles or not, it seems plausible that a sailor, or sailors, could have.  There were certainly enough sailors in the boxing game that Navy slang might be used among sailors, be heard and repeated by others, and eventually become part of the language. 

The early association of the idiom with the Navy and sailors, the close association between and among the Navy, goats, and boxing, and the close association of the phrase to a fight refereed by “Sailor Tom” Sharkey, and Sharkey’s ties to other heavyweights (real and metaphorical) of boxing, at least make it plausible that the Navy is the source of the phrase.  The complete absence of similar evidence with respect to racehorses makes the Navy origin seem even more likely.

For my money, boxing was the immediate source of the phrase when it entered the language.  It also seems likely that the expression came into boxing through the Navy.   Although the expression may be retroactively applicable to horse racing, and the existence of stable goats, generally, may have helped make the expression resonate with the public, the coining of and the introduction of the expression into the language appears to be wholly unrelated to horse racing.

[My notion that "Get My Goat" originated in the Navy, and among Navy boxers, is consistent with an even earlier example of the idiom (November 1900) - see my "Get My Goat" Update.]

The Idiom Spreads

By 1907, “get one’s goat” was picked up by baseball writers, and made its first appearances in non-Navy/non-sporting contexts.  By 1908, the expression had become commonplace.  But for the idiom to catch on outside the niche world of sailors and boxers, the idiom must have resonated with ordinary people who might not be as familiar with Navy goats or boxing-insider lingo.  “Get your goat” has a certain alliterative appeal - the staccato repetition of G’s and T’s is catchy.  On a few occasions before the idiomatic expression became popular, the “get one’s goat” construction was used in the case of stories or reports of actual goats that were missing or stolen. 

If the expression was coined in the Navy, it was apparently a reference to the use of goats as mascots, companions and/or good-luck charms on ships.  The goat-getting imagery bore at least a tangible relationship to the intended, idiomatic meaning.  The general public, not steeped in Navy tradition, may not have related, specifically, to the same Navy goat imagery.  The use of goats as mascots, however, was not limited to the Navy. 

Goats as Mascots

Goats were kept in stables, alongside horses and cattle, since at least the early 1800s.  The perceived or purported benefits included health of cattle and horses, and companionship to improve the mood of horses.  In France, in the early 1800s:

A goat in the stable is esteemed, in France, a sure protection from contagion to the cattle with which it associates, and ranks most probably with the bracket-hen, which, in Ireland, holds so distinguished a place among the lares and penates of the cottage hearth.

Lady Morgan, France, Philadelphia, M. Thomas, 1817.

In 1820s England:

. . . as an antidote to loneliness, some persons keep a goat in the stable – in other respects such a guest is unserviceable.

John Bell, Conversations on Conditioning. The Grooms’ Oracle, and Pocket Stable-Directory, London, Sherwood, Gilbert, and Piper, 1829, page 70.

In 1830s England:

Many persons keep Goats in their stables, from an idea that they contribute to the health of the Horses; - a fancy not perhaps so far-fetched or absurd as at first sight it may appear; for I believe that all animals are kept in better temper and greater cheerfulness by the presence of a companion than in solitude, and the active and good-humoured Goat may in this way really perform the benefit which has been attributed to it upon mistaken grounds; - indeed, instances of close attachment between the Horse and the stable Goat are not unfrequent.

Thomas Bell, A History of British Quadrupeds, including the Cetacea, London, J. Van Voorst, 1837, page 435.

A History of British Quadrupeds (1837).
Some people loved their stable goats:

Goats Are His Vanity.

Other Folks May Like What They Like – Give Me Goats, Says Dreyfus.

Dreyfus has lost his goats.  He would rather have lost two barrels of vinegar than those goats.

“What are you stuck on goats for, Dreyfus?” somebody asked him.

“Well, you see,” said he, “it is just this way.  Some people like one thing.  Some people like another.  I like goats.  I didn’t care so much for the white one, outside of her milk – a quart a day just now.  But the black one was a dandy, She was nice.”

“Why, Dreyfus?”

“Oh, I don’t know.  There’s no accounting for likes and dislikes.”

There were two of these goats living in Dreyfus’s stable, which is in the rear of 125 Allen street.  One was white and had horns.  The other was black and had no horns, but could buck with great force and effect.  Every morning when Dreyfus ran his wagons out the two goats ran out and roamed the streets, making friends, eating what they could find to eat, fighting when necessity called, looking always solemn and dignified with their beautiful whiskers, as responsive as the tremulous aspen.

Wednesday morning they ran out as usual.  They had their regular morning scrap with the baker’s dog across the way, then they walked solemnly up Allen street and around into Rivington.  Since then they have not been seen.  Dreyfus will pay a reward to the person who brings them back.

The Sun (New York), September 19, 1891, page 2, column 2.

Horse stables, and their goats, would have been a familiar sight to people in the early 1900s.  The United States was still largely agrarian, and mechanized tractors had not yet supplanted horse-power (actual horses, not the unit of measuring power).  Stables and stable goats, or livery goats, were very ubiquitous, and received periodic mention in print. 

Horse stables and goats were not only found in rural areas.  They were also a familiar sight in the big cities.  Remember, up until the end of the 1800s, and into the early 1900s, horses were everywhere.  Horses pulled delivery trucks, fire trucks, omnibuses, trolleys, carts, carriages, water wagons, and cabs; and some people rode in the saddle.  Although trolley lines were switched from horse-power to electric power, beginning in the early 1890s[ix], and the automobile age started in earnest in the late-1890s, horses and motorized vehicles competed for space on city streets for for many years.  This video, from 1906, shows horses, cars, and electric trolleys and cable cars all competing, rather haphazardly, for space on Market Street in San Francisco, California. 

The advent of the automobile age, and the disappearance of goats from city streets, caused at least one writer to wax nostalgic about the disappearance of goats (although the writer’s main concern, and focus of the article, was the disappearance of seasonal “Bock beer” and the goat-signage that accompanied it):

“I’d hate to join a secret society,” said a man, leaning comfortably against the bar and drinking light beer because he couldn’t get dark.  “If I really became a member of any of those things that have Most Worthy Grands and Senior Worshipfuls and wear gorgeous uniforms I’d be afraid of discovering that the goat ridden at initiations was only a myth.

“I don’t want to be undeceived, for the lodge goat of mystery and secrecy is about the last species that is left to us, here in town at any rate.  The Harlem goat has passed into history and The Bronx.  There are no squatters left, no frisking kids and solemn rams browsing on what is now Riverside Drive.  And now, this spring, we are losing an old friend, the bock beer goat, the whiskered goat rampant, which, carved life size out of wood or lithographed in colors, used to decorate the front of every saloon on the first of April.

The Sun (New York), April 15, 1906, third section, page 4.

The reference to “secret societies” and “lodge goats,” at the beginning of that article, serves as an introduction to a third type of goat mascot, and a once common initiation rite, “riding the goat.”

Riding the Goat

Secret societies and fraternal orders, like the Benign, Protective, Order of Elks, International Order of Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias, and, perhaps most famously, the Masons, all had, or still may have (shhh, it’s a secret), secret initiation rites.  One “secret” rite that was common to all of those lodges in the late-19th Century and into the early-20th Century was “riding the goat.”

Last Friday night they had a grand pow-wow, initiated ten new members, and eight of them rode the goat through the mazes of all three of the degrees, which proves what a sturdy animal Vanderbilt’s goat is.  He had to lay up for repairs before carrying the eighth and ninth candidates through, the only instance on record where the goat succumbed to the candidates.

Public Ledger (Memphis, Tennessee), March 5, 1883, page 2. 

Walter Arnold was made an Odd Fellows Monday night by initiation.  Will Keisling, George Newberry, George Patrick and Rev. J. W. Stockton, will ride the goat next Monday night.

The Butler Weekly Times, September 4, 1889, page 4.

Saturday night at Bayard the M W of A was organized with twenty-two members.  There were several who said their prayers and then rode the goat.  Several members from other lodges were there and they had their fun seeing the others ride the goat.

The Iola Register, September 28, 1900, page 11.

In 1902, the introduction to the book, The Lodge Goat, Goat. Goat Rides, Butts and Goat hairs (a collection of hundreds of anecdotes of lodge life and riding the goat) explains the origins of the practice:

The old Greeks and Romans portrayed their mystical god Pan in horns and hoofs and shaggy hide, and called him ‘goat-footed.’  When the demonology of the classics was adopted and modified by the early Christians, Pan gave way to Satan, who naturally inherited his attributes; so that to the common mind the devil was represented by a he-goat . . . .  Then came the witch stories of the Middle Ages, and the belief in witch orgies, where, as it was said, the devil appeared riding on a goat. . . . Dr. Oliver says, ‘It was in England a common belief that the Freemasons were accustomed in their Lodges “to raise the devil.”’ So the ‘riding of the goat,’ which was believed to be practiced by the witches, was transferred to the Freemasons, and the saying remains to this day.

James Pettibone, The Lodge Goat. Goat Rides, Butts and Goat Hairs.Cincinnati, Ohio, 1902.

But whether “riding the goat” had its roots in Roman mythology or merely in the desire to see your fraternity brothers look silly before letting them into your club, lodge goats were one more example of goat mascots from the early 20th Century when the idiom, “get my goat,” emerged.  Navy goats, lodge goats, and stable goats were all fixtures of turn-of-the-century pop-culture. 

But, just as the stable goats’ days were numbered, the lodge goats’ days were numbered:

Elks’ Lodge Goat Remains in Exclusion.

The committee on ritual in its report recommended that no action be taken in the matter of the “lodge goat.” A year ago at the instigation of the big city lodges the “goat” was abolished as part of the initiation ceremony, on the ground that it lacked dignity.

Arizona Republican (Phoenix), July 11, 1912, page 4.

The goats that made “get my goat” so meaningful, interesting, clever and memorable to people of the early 20th Century, have all disappeared, leaving subsequent generations to puzzle about the meaning of having one’s goat got.  The cryptic (to modern sensibilities) “goat” may not have been so cryptic in 1906.  “Getting one’s goat” may well have resonated with people who were familiar with the tradition of goats as mascots and companions on ships, in stables, and for sports teams.

The idiom took root in fertile ground when it went mainstream in about 1907.

Early Use of “Get One’s Goat”

“Get one’s goat” appeared in print in a Navy story in late October, 1905, followed weeks later in a report of a Navy boxing match in mid-November, 1905.  In December, 1905, “Kid” McCoy told Jack O’Brien how to get Fitzsimmons’ goat.  Members of the American Dialect Society recently identified several additional, early attestations for “get my goat,” all of them from boxing:

“No, none of them can punch like Corbett.   He got my goat that day and got it good”

Kansas City Star, November 22, 1905, page 21 (ADS-L, October 3, 2014).

[Battling Nelson’s manager] arranged to keep Terry in the ring a long time before the bell in order to get his goat and shatter his nerves . . . .

Cincinnati Enquirer, March 25, 1906, page 33 (ADS-L, October 3, 2014).

But it may have been a brief news item about the colorful expressions used by boxing journalists that may have introduced the expression to a wider audience.  That news item was an excerpt from an in-depth human interest story about a match for the Lightweight Championship of the world, fought between Joe Gans and “Kid” Herman, in Tonopah, Nevada on January 1, 1907. 

On January 1, 1907, lightweight champion, Joe Gans, defended his title against “Kid” Herman in Tonopah, Nevada.  Tonopah, Nevada is about as remote as it sounds – located about half-way between Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada.  Boxing had been outlawed in many parts of the country, but was still legal in Nevada, so many prizefights were fought there.  Joe Gans, for example, had recently battled “Battling Nelson” in Goldfield, Nevada, in September, 1906.  Gans, the first black American to hold a world boxing title, had first won the title in 1902, and retained the title continuously through 1908.  He lost the title in his rematch with “Battling Nelson.”

Popular he-man author, Rex Beach, wrote an extensive feature about the match, the location, the fighters, the crowd, and the press-coverage surrounding the event for Everybody Magazine.  The editors explained Beach’s motivation for the article: 

“I wish to go,” he wrote, “and do what has never been done before: - report the psychology of this affair; tell of the strange crowd that will gather there, and diagnose that strange kink in the human brain which leads men from all sections of this land into the most inaccessible part of it, to see two naked boys fight with padded fists, though public opinion is so against the sport that it is tabooed in all but one or two corners of the United States.”

Editor’s note, The Fight at Tonopah, Rex Beach, Everybody’s Magazine, volume 16, number 4, April 1907, page 464.

One section of Beach’s report, about the curious slang used by boxing journalists, caught the attention of newspaper editors, and was reprinted in numerous papers across the entire United States and in England.  The article generally appeared under headlines like, “New Journalese” or “High Class Reporting”:

In a quiet interval between rounds I heard a reporter dictating high class pugilistic literature: “’Herman’s work in the fifth was classy and he fought all over the place.  He stabbed the Dinge in the food hopper three times and all but got his goat, then missed a right swing to the butler’s pantry by an inch.  If he had coupled it would have been the sunset glow for Dahomey, but Gans didn’t fall for the gag, not hardly.  He ripped an upper through the Yiddish lad and put him on the hop with a right cross.’”

Everybody’s Magazine, page 274.  This excerpt was reprinted at least in New York[x], Hawaii[xi], Ohio[xii], Missouri[xiii], Nebraska[xiv], Kentucky[xv], and London, England[xvi], and presumably dozens of other publications that are not yet available online. 

When Gans, who is thought to have been a reluctant fighter, finally felled Herman:

Even as he struck and before his man had fallen, Gans dropped his hands, the tension died from his muscles, and he turned his back.  His work was done.  Of all the yelling thousands, the calmest man as this gaunt, unsmiling negro who stood with his back to the ropes, the plaintive wrinkle puckering his brow suggesting that this was work for which he had no fondness.
His wife had sat unmoved throughout the contest, but as the white lad groped blindly for support before his collapse, she wrung her hands and cried:
“My God!”

It was the only note of pity I heard throughout that day.

Everybody’s Magazine, page 274. 

Through the miracle of Youtube, you can watch the fight HERE.

Baseball writers picked up on the expression by mid-1907:
Don’t crawl into the grandstand to put your imprint on a knocker’s slats, or the gang will get your goat so that your playing will be on the blink.

The Washington Times, June 2, 1907, Sports-Real Estate, page 5.

Frisco tied the score in the sixth spasm by getting to Bergeman for a pair of safe ones which called for a like number of runs.  Before this time Bergeman had been pitching the swellest kind of ball, and had allowed but one measly single, but when the Boodlers once got his goat it was all off.

Los Angeles Herald, July 1, 1907, page 8.

Owen relieved Smith in the seventh and held the Nationals safe, but they got his goat in the eighth and put the game on ice.

The Washington Times, July 15, 1907, Last Edition, page 10.

The Day Book (Chicago, Illinois), March 4, 1914, last edition, page 24.

The expression came into more general use in 1907:

I hadn’t done any exercising except a little walking – blamed little – for fourteen years, so that Muldoon’s treadmill more than got my goat.  There wasn’t a square inch of me that didn’t ache.

Evening Star (Washington DC), September 28, 1907, page 22.

Another of the pictures in that illustrated article shows the same mighty nimrod standing self-consciously alongside of a young zebra that he had just shot.  Well, that got my goat quite some, too.  Why a young zebra?  I didn’t know that zebras were predatory animals.

Evening Star (Washington DC), September 28, 1907, page 22.

I’m not experienced, but I’ve got a lot of earfuls from lonesome wifies that would get your goat.

The Evening World (New York), February 7, 1908, page 17.

“It was the sneaking way he done the job that got my goat.” Said Epps to the Magistrate.

The Sun (New York), March 23, 1908, page 4.

By June of 1908, the expression was popular enough to be used in song:

Somebody’s Got My Goat; words by Edward Madden, music by Theodore Morse. [15640] F. B. Haviland pub. Co., New York, N. Y. C 182830, June 3, 1908.

Catalogue of Copyright Entries, New Series, Volume 3: Part 3: Musical Compositions Index, Washington DC, 1908.

“Get my goat” was here to stay.

“Get My Goat’s” Dual Meaning

In 1909, Jim Corbett explained the meaning of the phrase to an Australian writer unfamiliar with the expression:

Famous Fights of the Past. 
How Corbett Beat ‘Kid’ McCoy. 

In the sixth round M’Coy started hitting.  He came at me full of fight, and then I knew I had ‘got his goat.’  Pardon the expression.  It is an Americanism which means that I had so worried M’Coy that he had lost his temper, and was disposed to exchanged boxing for slogging, science for brute force. 

Sunday Times (Perth, Australia), October 17, 1909, page 14.

A slightly different sense of the word was offered by another writer in 1909:

Now no prize fighter ever lived who could keep his nerve through a fight if he knew that his seconds in the corner behind him were not with him heart and soul.  Jim Jeffries in his best condition could not have licked a string of forty cab drivers in forty days, if his seconds had gone at him between every fight and every round and called him down as a dub and a coward.  Jeffries might lick the first twenty men, but the ceaseless criticism and negative suggestion of his seconds would take all the fight out of him and “get his goat” in the end.

Business Philosopher, volume 5, number 1, page 21.

To lose one’s temper and to lose one’s will to fight are seemingly polar opposites.  One is aggressive, the other passive.  But they both result in the inability to perform properly.  Taken together, however, perhaps they are merely two sides of the same coin. 

Losing one’s temper and losing one’s fight can be viewed as two forms of losing one’s composure.  The original meaning of, “get one’s goat,” may therefore have been to cause someone to lose their composure; either due to anger and aggravation, or to a loss of motivation.

The two senses coexisted from the early days of the idiom.  The article on Navy slang in 1908, for example, mentioned the less onerous, getting “white goats” (teasing) and more serious, getting “black goats” (angering).  Most of the early boxing and baseball examples seem to fall within the sense of losing one’s competitive fire.  But the sense of causing anger was also used as early as 1907.  The “sneaking way he done the job” got Epps’s goat, for example, and zebra hunting got a writer’s goat. 

“Losing One’s Goat”

An interesting aspect of, “get one’s goat,” is that there is an implied action by someone else in getting the goat away from the original owner.[xvii]  But if having your goat got by someone causes a loss of composure, what happens if you just lose your own goat?

As a matter of fact, starting in about 1910, the expression, “to lose one’s goat,” became increasingly common. 

Baseball executives could lose their goat:

Tom Loftus lost his goat somewhere along the line in one short year[xviii], and no one incumbent could ever have stood the gaff here as long as Harry Pulliam stood it at the head of the National.

Rock Island Argus, January 7, 1910, page 3.

Baseball umpires could lose their goat:

Goyheneix has Lost His Goat; A New Umpire.

Cananea, Son., Mex., June 6. – Umpire Jack Goyheneix has been released by Vic Walling, captain of the umpires. . . . The reason is not that he is unqualified to officiate at a game ball, but that he hasn’t the makeup of a man who can command respect of the players. 

El Paso Herald, June 6, 1910, page 12.

Boxers could lose their goats:

He was a bit afraid in the first round – yes, even in the second – but in the third, when he knew away down deep in his heart that Jeffries’ goat had hurdled the fence, he waded right in.  He knew that he had the white man’s number, he knew that he could win any time he pleased.

The San Francisco Call, July 14, 1910, page 10.

And pitchers could lose their goats:

Then to the surprise of everybody, including the entire Los Angeles team, Bodie stole home and Tennant stole third.  Criger lost his goat and issued a pass to Berry.

The San Francisco Call, October 10, 1910, page 8.

In a game between the San Francisco Seals and the Oakland Oaks (coincidentally, just weeks after San Francisco sportswriters first used the word “jazz” at the Seals’ spring training camp[xix]), the pitcher lost more than a common stable goat:

From then on until the eighth it was pretty much of an even break.  In this frame Standridge’s Rocky mountain crag jumper began to show restlessness and finally broke away from him entirely.  In other words, he lost his goat and lost it good.

San Francisco Call, April 20, 1913, page 49.

The expression was still in use into the 1920s:

A man that will acknowledge that he is a tramp or laboring man, and dyed-in-the-wool in either of these professions, has lost his goat, thrown up the sponge, and admitted defeat maybe to a weaker, but gamer fellow – in fact has a streak of yellow on his back worse than a college athlete’s sweater.

The Morning Tulsa Daily World, September 8, 1922.

Somewhere along the line, perhaps because goat mascots faded from our collective memory, or because the absence, or lack, of alliteration made it more forgettable, the language seems to have abandoned, “lose one’s goat.”

   Boy, that really “gets my goat”!

[i] Stephen Goranson, ADS-L, October 3, 2014, “If that don’t get my goat!”; Papeeyon, Stephen French Whitman, Collier’s, Volume 36, October 28, 1905, page 24 (a story that takes place in the United States Navy). 
[ii] Stephen French Whitman is the grandson of Stephen F. Whitman, founder of Whitman’s Chocolates.
[iii] Somebody’s Got My Goat; words by Edward Madden, music by Theodore Morse. [15640] F. B. Haviland pub. Co., New York, N. Y. C 182830, June 3, 1908.
[iv] According to the Introduction of Master Mariner, written by Eastwick’s granddaughter, the book was based on the “story of my grandfather’s life, dictated by himself about the year 1836.”  The shipwreck described in the anecdote of the goat, is independently said to have happened in 1792. See, W. H. Coates, The Old Country Trade of the East Indies, London, Imray, Laurie, Norie & Wilson, Ltd., 1911, page 108.
[v] Pacific Commercial Advertiser, August 4, 1906, page 6 (Tonight will decide whether Jack McFadden or Sailor Morch is the better ring artist under that set of boxing rules known as Queensberry.).
[vi] Pullman Herald (Washington), March 3, 1906, page 3 (The 20 round boxing contest between Sailor Kelly and “Kid” Fredericks, scheduled to take place in Wardner February 24, has . . . been postponed until March 3.).
[vii] The Washington Times (DC), February 21, 1906, last edition, page 10 (Sailor Burke, of Brooklyn, at last knows how it feels to be knocked out.).
[viii] Bert “Sailor” Bowers fight record, at
[ix] The new trolleys caused numerous electrocutions, collisions, public backlash and the introduction of the first speed limits and traffic codes.  In Brooklyn, New York, the trolley controversy and new electric-trolley system led the baseball team to adopt the name, “Trolley Dodgers” – now the Los Angeles Dodgers. See my post, The Grim Reality of the Trolley Dodgers.
[x] New York Tribune, May 26, 1907, Part 4 (Music, Drama and Fashion), page 3.
[xi] The Pacific Commercial Advertiser (Honolulu, Hawaii), June 16, 1907, page 13.
[xii] The Marion (Ohio) Daily Mirror, July 4, 1907, page 3.
[xiii] The Holt County Sentinel (Oregon, Missouri), July 12, 1907, page 3.
[xiv] The Falls City (Nebraska) Tribune, July 26, 1907, page 3.
[xv] The Mt. Sterling(Kentucky) Advocate, August 14, 1907, page 4; The Paducah (Kentucky) Evening Sun, August 26, 1907, page 8.
[xvi] Several of the newspaper articles credit the “Tatler” or the “London Tatler” as the source of the article.  Beach’s Everybody’s Magazine article may have been reprinted there.
[xvii] This is why I disregard a reference from 1904 that other commentators consider the earliest attestation of “get my goat.”  The book, Life in Sing Sing, by Number 1500 (Indianapolis, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1904, page 248), lists the word “goat” in a glossary of prison-slang.  It defines “goat as meaning, “[anger; to exasperate.”  But that description strikes me as being more like a variation of the word, “goat,” or a suggestion of head-butting or provoking (as a goat might), not the taking of a goat away.  I view this reference as separate, or at a minimum, not clearly related to the idiom, “get one’s goat.”  You be the judge.
[xviii] Tom Loftus was a former baseball player and manager.  This reference may refer to his relationship with baseball’s Western League, which he helped organize. See Arizona Republican, August 21, 1911, page 2.


  1. Slightly earlier:
    Public Opinion [New York] vol. 39 no. 17 "Experience of a Shop Girl. II In the Working Girl's Home" by Elizabeth Howard Westwood p. 517 col. 2.

    "Well, that gets my goat," gasped Alice when we recovered speech. "The nerve of her You'd think no one else had ever seen a college girl!"

    Stephen Goranson

  2. Language Hat alerted me to your ongoing search for the origins of "get one's goat". I used to be the etymologist of the American Heritage Dictionary until most of the editors were laid off by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2011. When I was the AHD etymologist, I used to wonder about this expression too... so I am passing on something that I have noticed that may be relevant to your search.

    French has an expression similar to "get your goat" that dates at least from 1675. Here is the relevant section from the Trésor de la langue française informatisé (online at ), under the word chèvre ("goat").

    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)

    And under the etymology section:

    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 English expression, and I have never ventured to look in any other languages besides French. But you can add these data to your hopper.

    All the best,
    Patrick Taylor

    Eğitim Görevlisi
    Mardin Artuklu Üniversitesi

    1. Thank you Patrick.
      I should have mentioned the French idiom earlier. But your comment got me to looking once more - and I discovered an interesting detail about American boxers in Paris - including Kid McCoy - in the years leading up to 1905.
      I hope this makes up for my earlier lapse of judgement:
      I'm not sure what it all means, but it is still interesting.

  3. I found a usage dating from Nov. 28, 1900, from the Topeka State Journal, page 2. The article in question out of Atchison, Kansas, is about a local baseball player named Roy Krebs who has joined the Navy and is stationed on the battleship Kentucky. The final sentence in the short article is a quote from the player:

    "My enlistment expires June 15, 1904," writes Krebs, "when I will return to Atchison, unless some Navy boxer gets my goat."

    I have a pdf of the page in question I can send. This use suggests it was probably in common use before 1900 - at least common enough to need no explanation.

    1. Thank you Jeff, for pointing out an early reference that I (and others) missed. The reference to the Navy and Navy boxers corroborates the suggestion that the expression originated in the Navy, and was used among Navy boxers.

    2. See my "Get My Goat" Update: