Wednesday, November 19, 2014

An American Boxer in Paris - Did "Prendre la Chevre" Beget "Get My Goat"?

An American Boxer in Paris - 
Did "Prendre la Chevre" Beget "Get My Goat"?

In an earlier post, I surveyed the history of the English-language idiom, “Get My Goat,” and some of the cultural factors that may have influenced the development of the idiom.  

The phrase first appeared in 1905.  Most of the early uses of the idiom are in boxing reports.  One of the earliest uses is in a Navy story, and one early use is in a Navy-boxing story.  Based on a close association between and among the Navy, boxing, and goats, it seemed plausible, if not likely, that the Navy could have been the ultimate origin of the phrase. 

When I put my piece together, however, did not mention one other, possible influence on the phrase.  I omitted any discussion of the similar French idiom, “prendre la chevre.”  Ben Zimmer mentioned the idiom briefly in Slate’s Lexicon Valley podcast about “get my goat.” I also received a comment in the comments section of my earlier “Get My Goat,” post.

I admit it.  I should have mentioned the phrase; at least in the interest of completeness.  My bad. 

Prendre la Chevre

The French phrase, “prendre la chevre,” is a French idiom that means, to “lose one’s temper.”  As I understand it, the literal meaning of the phrase is, to “take the goat.”  Although the goat reference, and corresponding loss of temper, are similar on the surface, the allusion underlying the idioms are diametrically opposed.  In French, I lose my temper if I, “prendre la chevre,” – take the goat; whereas, in English, I lose my temper if someone else “prendres” my “chevre” – takes my goat.  The loss of temper in the idiom, “prendre la chevre,” also differs from the dominant sense that “get my goat” had during the early days of the idiom.  In many of the earliest uses of “get my goat,” it was used to indicate that a boxer had lost their will to fight; not that the boxer had become angry or lost their temper.

An English-French dictionary that mentions both idioms also seems to suggest that the two idioms do not have the same meaning: 

goat . . . U.S.: P: To get s.o.’s goat, irriter, exasperer, F: horripiler, qn; porter sur les nerfs a qn.  It gets my g., ca me fait rager, To lose one’s goat, se facher.

temper . . . To lose one’s temper . . . F: se facher tout rouge, prendre la chevre.

J. E. Mansion (Editor), Heath’s Standard French and English Dictionary, Part 2, English-French with Supplement (1955) (first published 1939), Bath, England, Pitman Press, pages 521 and 1290.

I would have given the French connection more weight if there had been a significant wave of French immigration in the years just prior to the emergence of “Get My Goat” in 1905.  The French expression apparently dates back to the 1600s[i], but “get my goat dates to 1905.  Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin both spent years in Paris without losing their goats.  The Marquis de Lafayette and Pierre L’Enfant came and went in the early days of the United States without leaving a goat trail.  French speakers lived among us, and around us, in Canada, Maine, and Louisiana, for hundreds of years, without taking our goats.  Generations of American academics learned French, studied in France, and sent French postcards home – all without getting our goats. 

In addition, the close association between and among the Navy, boxers, and goats just seemed so persuasive. 

It is also possible that the same impetus for coining the French idiom in 1675 resulted in the independent coining of the English-language expression in the United States, more than two hundred years later.  France, England and the United States all had long traditions of keeping goats with other livestock. 

It is also possible that one person, in the right place at the right time, used (or misused) the French expression, it caught someone’s attention, and the expression just took off.

It is possible that that person was in the Navy or was a boxer.

But how did boxers pick up the idiom in 1905?

Curious – I went back to the salt mines and found these tantalizing tid-bits.

An American Boxer in Paris

In 1905, just before “get my goat,” first appeared in print, American-style (or, I guess more properly, English-style) boxing enjoyed a sort of renaissance in France (the French having, previously, primarily engaged in La Savate, or kickboxing):

Boxing is gaining in favor in France.  A number of boxing matches have taken place recently in France, and others are scheduled.  Most of the fighters are Englishmen, the French not having as yet developed a really first-class man with the gloves.  Kid Lavigne, at one time a topnotcher in America, had a prosperous boxing school at Paris, though I believe for some reason he has given it up.  Several good English fighters give lessons in the French capital and are well patronized.  Le Boxe” bids fair to become a permanent institution across the Channel.

The Washington Times (Washington DC), September 10, 1905, Sporting News, page 3, column 3.

American boxers had been running boxing schools in France since at least 1902: 

Kid McCoy[ii] is in Paris where he appears to be enjoying himself by telling Frenchmen that he is the greatest fighter in the world.  So smoothly has McCoy talked that Count Castellane[iii] is said to have expressed a willingness to back him against Jeffries or Fitzsimmons for $20,000.  If the Count will take the trouble to study pugilistic form and also consult a few American experts at the game, he may deem it advisable to keep his money in his inside pocket.  It is doubtful if McCoy could be dragged into a ring with either Jeffries or Fitz by a team of horses.

The Sun (New York), March 20, 1902, page 8, column 1.

Kid McCoy has rented a big gymnasium in the Champs Elysees, Paris, to teach the jeunesse dore of Paris the science of boxing, or “la boxe,” as it is called.  McCoy said:

“I am so far advanced in my calling that I am going to be a professor.  When a man has fought 269 battles, losing only three, he is entitled to a degree from the university of pugilism.

“My coming is part of the American invasion.   We can’t let Schwab and Morgan do all the invading.  I can’t buy up a monopoly of trying to teach boxing.  Mine will be a voluntary trust, and I will let in all who wish to learn to box.  I am the first American to teach boxing in France.

“It will be worth more to France than all the commercial colleges the government intends to establish in the United States.  If ever France hopes to obtain revenge for Metz, the young Frenchmen must learn how to box.  I’ll make strenuous men of them.  I do not mean to retire from the ring.  The Count de Castellane will be my pupil.”

Voila le garcon, McCoy.  Vive le Kid!

The Butte Inter-Mountain (Montana), March 11, 1902, page 8, column 3.

McCoy was back in the US by August:

McCoy Wants to Fight Jeffries

Kid McCoy, who returned from Europe recently, has announced that he is anxious to secure a fight with Jim Jeffries, and that unless he can do so is out of the ring for good. . . . McCoy has been automobiling in France.

The Butte Inter-Mountain, August 12, 1902, Evening Edition, page 8, column 6.

But McCoy was not the only American teaching boxing in France in the early 1900s:

Kid Lavigne Has Returned to America
Has Had All He Wants on Other Side of the Atlantic.

New York, Sept. 9. – After a stay of more than two years in France, “Kid” Lavigne, once the world’s champion light-weight fighter, has returned to America.  He says that he has had all that he wants of the other side, and that hereafter he will remain on his native heath.

Lavigne, who is in as fine shape as the night he defeated Joe Walcott at Maspeth, relates an advanced idea of the manly art of self-defense in France.
Lavigne conducted a school of boxing while in Paris, and in it he taught many of the French nobility and aristocracy much about the American style of boxing.  According to him the national sport of La Savate has taken a back seat and the American and English game has come to the fore.

The Salt Lake Tribune (Utah), September 10, 1905, Sporting Section, page 4.

Evening Statesman (Walla Walla, Washington), February 9, 1905, page 3.


I am not sure that we can draw any conclusion, with any degree of certainty.  The Navy did have a long tradition of keeping goats, and several of the earliest appearances of “get my goat” in print related to the Navy, and to Navy boxers.  

The French have a very similar idiom.

But, at least two American boxers did run boxing schools in France in the years immediately preceding the emergence of the idiom, “get my goat.”  They would certainly have had the opportunity to learn the French idiom, “prendre la chevre,” and to bring it back to the United States in the form of, “get my goat.”  

The world is an interesting, and complicated place; and language reflects that.

Still looking for that smoking gun; but the Navy connection seems plausible.

[i] The comment on my earlier post cites a French dictionary that dates the expression, “prendre la chevre,” to 1675.
[ii] On December 20, 1905 (just weeks after “get my goat” first appeared in print), Kid McCoy advised Jack O’Brien to “Step on the old man’s feet. . . . 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.” Los Angeles Herald, December 17, 1906, page 6 (see my earlier post).
[iii] The Count’s Countess was Anna Gould, daughter of American financier, Jay Gould.

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